27 December 1935: On this day in Berlin history, Regina Jonas became the world’s first woman to be ordained as a Rabbi
Born in 1902 and raised in the poor and mostly Jewish Scheunenviertel (barn quarter) to the North of Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, Regina Jonas showed a remarkable aptitude for Jewish history and Hebrew throughout her schooling. Her fellow students remembered her speaking often of becoming a Rabbi.
In 1924 she brought this passion to the Academy for the Science of Judaism, and wrote her final thesis on the question “May a woman hold rabbinical office?” Her paper, a copy of which is still held in Berlin, did not seek to abandon Halaknah (the body of Jewish laws and ordinances derived from the Torah) but rather embedded her case for female ordination in the details of talmudic texts. She argued that “almost nothing halachically but prejudice and lack of familiarity stand against women holding rabbinic office.”
Although some supported her ambitions, appreciating her evident knowledge and flair for interpreting the Talmud, other supervisors feared a scandal and a rift in the Jewish Community. It was not until 1935 that she finally was ordained by liberal Rabbi Max Dienemann.
By this stage, the Nazis had been in power for over 2 years, and life would become increasingly desperate for Berlin and Germany’s Jewish communities. This meant Jonas’ role as an educator, spiritual leader, and provider of pastoral care became increasingly vital. Even after her deportation to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1942, she continued her rabbinical work, teaching and holding sermons.
In October 1944, however, she was transported to Auschwitz and murdered.
She was 42 years old.
“If I confess what motivated me, a woman, to become a rabbi, two things come to mind. My belief in God’s calling and my love of humans. God planted in our heart skills and a vocation without asking about gender. Therefore, it is the duty of men and women alike to work and create according to the skills given by God.”
Regina Jonas, C.-V.-Zeitung, June 23, 1938.