Jonas, Regina (1902–1944)

views updated

Jonas, Regina (1902–1944)

German-Jewish rabbi, the first woman rabbi in the history of Judaism, who played a key role in maintaining morale at the Theresienstadt-Terezin concentration camp. Born Regina Jonas in Berlin, Germany, on August 3, 1902; murdered in Auschwitz on December 12, 1944; daughter of Wolf Jonas and Sara (Hess) Jonas; brother, Abraham.

Destined to become the first woman rabbi in over three millennia of Jewish history, Regina Jonas was born in Berlin on August 3, 1902, into a religious family. In 1913, her father died, leaving the family in serious financial need. To support herself and her mother and brother, Jonas prepared for a teaching career and was granted her teaching certificate in March 1924. She began teaching in secondary girls' schools and also enrolled as a rabbinical student at Berlin's renowned Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums (Academy for the Science of Judaism), a seminary for the training of liberal rabbis and educators.

As the only woman enrolled at the Academy, Jonas was fully aware of the prejudices, ancient and modern, against the possibility of a woman becoming a rabbi. Accordingly, in 1930 she wrote a halakhic thesis entitled "Can a Woman Hold Rabbinical Office?" which was designed to refute the traditional arguments used to bar women from serving as rabbis. In essence, she argued that the Judeo-Christian tradition was patriarchal, not due to theological truths but rather to social and historical factors that were now clearly outmoded; although traditionally male dominated, androcentric and discriminatory, these elements were separable from Judaism, argued Jonas, and thus not intrinsic to it. To remain a vital faith, Judaism needed to tap the immense spiritual energies of its women.

Early in the 20th century, there were signs of change in Judaism over the question of women's role in religious matters. In Great Britain, the Jewish social worker Lily Montagu (1874–1963) had co-founded the Liberal Synagogue of London in 1902. In 1928, Montagu visited Berlin and spoke from the pulpit of a synagogue as part of the meeting in that city of the World Union for Progressive Judaism. Jonas may well have attended this meeting; certainly she heard about it and was very likely inspired by Montagu's example. In a 1939 interview Jonas granted to a Swiss women's magazine, she asserted, "I came to my profession from a religious conviction that God does not oppress any human being, that therefore the man does not rule the woman or occupy a spiritual position of supremacy over her. I came to it from the view of the final and complete spiritual equality between the sexes, which were created by a just and merciful God."

In December 1935, one month after the Nuremberg Laws creating an apartheid regime of official discrimination for German Jews went into effect, Jonas went to liberal Rabbi Max Dienemann in the town of Offenbach to take her oral halakhic examination. After she passed, Dienemann wrote (in Hebrew, as required) on her rabbinic diploma: "[H]er heart is with God and Israel and … she gives her soul to the purpose which she intends for herself, and that she is God-fearing, and since she passed the examination which I gave her in halakhic matters, I attest that she is capable of answering questions of Halakhah and that she deserves to be appointed to the rabbinical office. And may God support her and stand by her and accompany her on all her ways."

Although a significant number of liberal German rabbis and Jewish community boards sent Jonas letters of congratulation, Rabbi Dienemann's action remained controversial in the minds of many German Jews. Even he initially had warned Jonas not to use the title "Rabbi"; the supportive attitudes of others, however, gave her the courage to present herself in public as "Rabbinerin Jonas." Dienemann retreated over the next months and made the point that his signature on her diploma was only "personal" rather than on behalf of a rabbinic organization, and it was thus no more than a private ordination that had taken place in December 1935. He advised Jonas to be patient, since a majority of German liberal rabbis were not yet ready for a woman to serve a congregation as rabbi. Despite these disappointments, and her inability to function as a rabbi in a synagogue, Jonas continued working as a teacher, first in public schools and, as Nazi persecution of Jews increased after 1935, in segregated Jewish schools. By 1937, she was officially employed by the Berlin Jewish Community to work as an "academically trained teacher of religion." At times, she indicated her frustrations, as in a 1938 interview in a Jewish newspaper, the C.V.-Zeitung, in which she acknowledged having experienced a considerable amount of "aggravation and disappointment—even when there are some small successes."

Meanwhile Nazi persecution of Germany's Jews accelerated, reaching a new level of hatred in November 1938 during the infamous Kristallnacht pogrom. As a result of Nazi terrors, organized Jewish religious life in Germany virtually collapsed, not only because most synagogues were desecrated and demolished, but also because a large number of rabbis were in concentration camps or had decided to emigrate. As a result of these cataclysmic changes, great gaps appeared in the rabbinate. Although she was only one individual, and remained controversial because of her gender, Jonas filled in at least a few of these gaps. Never presiding officially over a congregation, she replaced on a temporary basis rabbis in Frankfurt, Bremen, and Stolp. She also gave lectures at three of Berlin's remaining synagogues. In 1941, during its last semester in existence, she re-enrolled at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums and participated in a course on homiletics (sacred rhetoric) with the man universally regarded as the spiritual head of German Jewry, Rabbi Leo Baeck.

By 1942, the Nazi Endlösung der Judenfrage (Final Solution of the Jewish Question) was in high gear, and in May of that year Jonas was conscripted as a slave laborer, working in a small packaging firm. In November 1942, she was informed that her property had been confiscated in favor of the German Reich and was told to appear the next day for deportation. Jonas was sent to Theresienstadt-Terezin, a so-called "model concentration camp" near Prague. Mostly German-speaking Jews were sent to this camp, which the Nazis designed to give the outside world the impression that even in wartime Jews were being well treated; a film was produced here with the grotesque title The Führer Presents the Jews with a City. In reality, existence in Theresienstadt was relentlessly harsh—with overcrowding, disease and malnutrition universal facts of life and death—and the camp was for many a transit station to Auschwitz.

Jonas spent almost two years in Theresienstadt, which contained many male rabbis including the revered Leo Baeck. Working with Victor Frankl's self-help organization, she volunteered to meet new arrivals to the camp at the train station, part of a welcoming committee that attempted to soften the first shock for trusting Jews who had believed Nazi propaganda that they could reasonably expect humane conditions to be maintained during their "resettlement to the East." Her preaching was meant to provide at least some of these disoriented and despairing individuals with a modicum of hope and a broader perspective in which they could attempt to make some sense of their situation. Although much of the documentation on her life in Terezin has vanished (a handwritten list of 24 lecture topics remains), one set of notes to a sermon she delivered there has survived. It contains evidence of her commitment:

Our Jewish people have been sent by God into history as "blessed." To be blessed by God means, to give wherever one steps, in every life situation blessing, kindness, faithfulness—humility before God, selfless and devoted love to his creatures sustain this world. To erect these fundamental pillars of the world was and is Israel's task. Man and woman, woman and man have taken on this task with the same Jewish devotion. Towards this ideal our grave, trying work in Theresienstadt caters … to be servants of God, and as such to be transported from earthly into eternal spheres.

On October 12, 1944, Regina Jonas was transferred as number 722 of Transport Equ 064/328 from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz. She was murdered there on December 12, 1944, at the age of 42. In 1995, Bea Wyler , whose rabbinical studies were completed at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, continued on the path begun two generations before by Jonas, becoming the first woman rabbi in post-1945 Germany. Wyler presently serves as rabbi to the Jewish community of Oldenburg.


Erler, Hans, Ernst Ludwig Ehrich, and Ludger Heid, eds. "Meinetwegen ist die Welt erschaffen": Das intellektuelle Vermächtnis des deutschsprachigen Judentums. Frankfurt am Main: Campus Verlag, 1997.

Herweg, Rachel Monika. "'Mein Name ist Frau Regina Jonas. Ich bin nicht die Frau eines Rabbiners. Ich bin Rabbinerin. Was kann ich für Sie tun?'. Die Rabbinerin Regina Jonas (Berlin 1902—Auschwitz 1944)," in Elke Kleinau, ed. Frauen in pädagogischen Berufen—Gestern und Heute. Bd. 1: Auf dem Weg zur Professionalisierung. Bad Heilbrunn: Julius Klinkhardt Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1996, pp. 152–167.

Jacobson, Jacob. "Bruchstücke 1939–1945" (unpublished manuscript, 1965), Leo Baeck Institute Archives, New York, file C 195.

Kellenbach, Katharina von. "'God Does Not Oppress Any Human Being': The Life and Thought of Rabbi Regina Jonas," in Leo Baeck Institute Year Book XXXIX. London: Secker & Warburg, 1994, pp. 213–225.

Regina Jonas Nachlass, Bundesarchiv Potsdam.

Schwarzfuchs, Simon. A Concise History of the Rabbinate. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1993.

Schwertfeger, Ruth. Women of Theresienstadt: Voices from a Concentration Camp. NY: Berg/St. Martin's Press, 1989.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia