Ask most Jews where and when the world’s first female rabbi was ordained, and they’ll likely guess 1970s America.
But they’d be off by four decades and a continent.
The first woman rabbi was not Sally Priesand, ordained by the Reform movement in 1972, but Regina Jonas, who earned the title in 1935 in Berlin.
This week, Priesand — along with other pioneering women rabbis from various movements and countries — is in Berlin and Prague trying to bring some belated recognition to Jonas, who perished in Auschwitz in 1944.
Highlights of their five-day tour, organized by the Jewish Women’s Archive and the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives to honor Jonas, included installing a plaque in Jonas’ memory at the Terezin concentration camp, where she was initially deported, and visiting Centrum Judaicum Archive, where Jonas’ personal papers were stored for safekeeping on the eve of her deportation.
“They came out with this little box,” said Priesand, who said she had been expecting a much bigger trove. “Her whole life was in this little box. And it reminded me of how important it is to tell the story. I wonder how many other stories were there” and never told.
Born in 1902 in Berlin, Jonas studied at the city’s Liberal Hochschule fur die Wissenschaft des Judentums (Higher Institute for Jewish Studies) and was ordained by Rabbi Max Dienmann. Leo Baeck also signed the ordination papers.
But after her death, she was largely forgotten until after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when her papers were rediscovered.
In a Tuesday evening program honoring Jonas, the rabbis discussed the challenges facing female rabbis today and shared stories about inspiration and obstacles.
Panelists included Amy Eilberg, who in 1985 became the first woman ordained by the Conservative movement; Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, who became the first woman Reconstructionist rabbi in 1974; Jaqueline Tabick, who in 1975 became the first female rabbi ordained in the United Kingdom and today is convener of the Rabbinic Court of the British Reform movement; and Alina Treiger, who in 2010 became the second woman rabbi ordained in Germany.
The program’s one Orthodox woman rabbi — Sara Hurwitz, who was ordained with the title of rabba in 2009 by Rabbis Avi Weiss and Daniel Sperber — was unable to reach Berlin due to the temporary closure of Ben Gurion Airport.
“Although [Regina Jonas'] voice was silenced,” said Hurwitz, speaking to the group via cell phone, “it is thanks to her courage [that] we are guaranteeing that [Jewish learning for women] not only survives but also thrives.”
Treiger noted that while Jonas had to do her studying at home, she herself was able to study alongside male rabbinical students at the Abraham Geiger College at the University of Potsdam.
“It was my motto: If she can do it, I will do it also,” she said.