By Elisa Klapheck
Had it not been for the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and for Regina Jonas’ foresight in leaving her documents with the Berlin Jewish community before being deported by the Nazis, her life and achievements might well have been lost in the mists of history.
Fräulein Rabbiner Regina Jonas became the first woman to be ordained as rabbi on Dec. 27, 1935. Seven years later, she and her 66-year-old mother Sara were sent to Theresienstadt. They arrived at Auschwitz on one of the last transports on Oct. 12, 1944, and were probably murdered on arrival.
It would not be until 1974 that another woman was ordained a rabbi: Sally Priesand in the Reform Movement, followed in 1976 by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso in the Reconstructionist movement, and in 1985 by the ordination of Amy Eilberg in the Conservative movement.
Jonas’ existence came to light when Dr. Katharina von Kellenback, a German researcher and lecturer at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, discovered an envelope with two photos of Jonas, her rabbinical diploma, teaching certificate, seminary dissertation and other documents in an archive containing the remains of the wartime Central Archive of German Jewry.
In 1998, Dr. Hermann Simon, director of the Stiftung Neue Synagogue Berlin – Centrum Judaicum, which oversaw the archive, asked Elisa Klapheck to write a biography and a commentary on Jonas’ halachic treatise, “Can Women Serve as Rabbis?”
At the time, Klapheck was editor-in-chief of a Jewish monthly (jüdisches berlin) and organizing a first-time conference in Berlin for women rabbis, cantors, scholars and spiritually interested Jews.
Now a rabbi herself, Klapheck is singularly suited for being Jonas’ biographer. Not only is she a former journalist and excellent writer, she is Jewish, the child of survivors and was raised in Berlin.
She placed ads in German-Jewish newspapers worldwide, collecting comments from Jonas’ contemporaries, students, colleagues and often their children. The result is a rich and varied perspective.
People who knew Regina Jonas described her as an attractive woman “with dark soulful eyes, black hair gathered at her neck and a stately figure.” She had a deep sonorous voice that made her a popular speaker. She was down to earth, amusing, loved to laugh and was a fascinating and memorable teacher.
Others described her as a woman who wore odd, unfashionable clothing, was clumsy and graceless in motion, often late and always exhausted. And she was irritating in her insistence on ordination.
By 1930, she had completed her studies, her written examination and her halachic treatise. It took five more years before her ordination was finally granted after a private oral examination by Rabbi Max Dienemann.
He, with Rabbi Leo Baeck, led the Rabbinical Association of Germany, an organization of liberal and orthodox rabbis. Rabbi Dienemann signed the Hebrew version of her ordination document; Rabbi Baeck signed the German translation.
Ordination notwithstanding, Regina Jonas was never allowed to take the pulpit of a major Berlin synagogue nor to lead ceremonies such as havdallah before a congregation.
But on the eve of the Holocaust as many rabbis left Germany, their pastoral tasks – teaching, counseling, visiting the sick and providing religious services to the elderly in suburban communities – fell to her.
Then when the Nuremberg Laws passed in the fall of 1935, many secular Jews returned to the Jewish community. Their children could no longer attend German public schools. Adults could no longer participate in Germany society. That meant larger audiences for Jonas’ lectures and more teaching work.
Even after Jonas was sent to Theresienstadt, she continued working — although not without resistance from the rabbinical authorities there. She helped psychoanalyst Viktor Frankl, author of MAN’S SEARCH FOR MEANING, in a crisis intervention service to help camp prisoners survive. She met incoming prisoners at the trains to help them cope with shock and disorientation. She gave lectures — one of which moved Dr. Frankl so much he could describe it in detail when interviewed by Dr. Von Kellenback in 1991. Frankl said he picked Jonas for his staff because “‘she was a gifted preacher and speaker,’ and aside from that she was a ‘personality with energy’ on whom one could depend.”
For Klapheck, Regina Jonas’ story does not end at Auschwitz. “As a Jew in Germany, I grew up with many stories of people who ended in the black hole of the Shoah, leaving no way to bridge the abyss,” she writes.
“She (Jonas) did not choose the time in which she lived. It was not her wish that her fight for women in the rabbinate would coincide with the destruction of European Jewry. Her life was dedicated to the renewal of Judaism And it was precisely this aspect of her struggle that did not perish in Auschwitz.”
Her legacy, Klapheck writes, lives on in every woman who dreams of serving the Jewish community.
(Note: For younger readers, Jonas’ story is told in Regina PERSISTED; An Untold Story, written by Rabbi Eisenberg Sasso.)
About the Author: Elisa Klapheck (1962 – )
Elisa Klapheck was inspired by Regina Jonas’ story to become an ordained rabbi.
After her 2004 ordination by the Aleph Rabbinic Program, she became rabbi of Beit HaChidush in Amsterdam in 2005, the first female rabbi to serve in the Netherlands.
She returned to Germany in 2009 and has been the rabbi of an egalitarian minyan in the Jewish community of Frankfurt am Main.
She was one of the organizers of Bet Debora Berlin, a conference of European women rabbis, cantors, scholars and rabbinically educated Jews in Berlin in 1999. She is a member of the General Conference of Rabbis of Germany and an associate member of the Rabbinic Board of Liberal Judaism in London.
For many years, she also worked as a journalist for major German newspapers and radio and television stations.
In addition to her biography of Rabbiner Jonas, Klapheck also wrote HOW I BECAME A RABBI; JEWISH CHALLENGES HERE AND NOW. She was featured in the 2010 documentary “Kol Ishah: The Rabbi is a Woman,” directed by Hannah Heer.