Regina Jonas, the first ordained woman Rabbi, writes to Martin Buber, Jewish philosopher and scholar of Hasidic lore, asking for guidance during the dark times of Berlin in 1938.
“I was born in Berlin to a religious family, and my father died when I was 11 years old. I didn’t have the means to go to university, but I studied with vigor at the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies in Berlin. I have to and want to support my mother, who is in great pain. (I also have a brother.)”
– Rabbi Regina Jonas to Martin Buber, 1938. Martin Buber was already living in Jerusalem
Tucked away in a box in the National Library’s archives, kept meticulously in a carefully catalogued envelope, is a letter by an often overlooked figure, who was lost in the midst of the tragedy of her own people.
Rabbi Regina Jonas seems doomed to be rediscovered over and over again, by the simple virtue of being a pioneer in her profession and a reformer of her religion in her own right. Were it not for letters such as the one she sent to Martin Buber, she would likely have been forgotten, condemned to eternal obscurity.
Regina Jonas’ graduating thesis at the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies in Berlin was titled “Can a Woman Be a Rabbi?”, for which her teacher, Rabbi Eduard Baneth, gave her the grade “Good”, two weeks before he died unexpectedly in 1930.
She would have to wait another five years before she was granted smicha, ordination, by liberal Rabbi Dr. Max Dienemann, helping her make history.
She was the first woman to officially receive the title. She insisted she be referred to as Miss Rabbi (Fraulein), for Mrs. Rabbi (Frau) would always refer to the Rabbi’s wife. She would distinguish herself by wearing purple robes instead of black and worked tirelessly to promote equality for women in the Jewish faith as well as fight for her own position as a Rabbi in the Reform Movement in Berlin.
When she sent her letter to Martin Buber in 1938, three years after her ordination, she told him of her work in Berlin as a Rabbi:
“In Berlin, I give spiritual guidance to patients in hospitals and to the residents of nursing homes. I also lecture at the Synagogue, I’ve presided over funerals, and I give sermons at the synagogues of the nursing homes.”
The above were duties her male counterparts were glad to let her keep, while they would preside over marriages and look over divorces. The poignancy of knowing what was to come for German Jewry is tangible in her words to Buber:
“Religious life is beginning to deteriorate [in Berlin]. And I have come to believe that in the Hassidic community the woman has more freedom and there is less prejudice pitted against her. I had hoped to find in you an understanding for the ideal that I could not find with all my teachers; the ‘question of women’ is as complex as the ‘Jewish question’ in the Diaspora. I do not want to leave my profession, I must work. Is there a possibility in the ארץ [the Land (of Israel)]?… So often you hear how the Jews in Germany, specifically the youth, have such unsophisticated religious ideas.”
In 1942 she was deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp with her mother. There she truly came into her own as a rabbi; comforting the afflicted, giving sermons to the people she loved so much and for whom she worked so hard to be ordained.
There are conflicting reports regarding Rabbi Jonas’ death. But we know that by the 12th of December 1944, she was sent to Auschwitz, where she was murdered.
This article was written with the generous help of Dr. Stefan Litt, of the Archives Department at the National Library of Israel.