First woman rabbi Regina Jonas honoured in Terezín

Regina Jonas, foto: public domain

Almost eighty years after her ordination, the world’s first woman rabbi, Regina Jonas, has been honoured at the former Nazi concentration camp in Terezín. Several of her successors, including the first American female rabbi Sally Priesand, attended the ceremony in Terezín. Since Jonas’ times, women have been serving the religious needs of hundreds of congregations around the world – but for the largely secular Czech Jewish community, there are no women rabbis in sight.

Lesley Weiss,  photo: US Government archive
A solemn ceremony in the memory of the pioneering rabbi Regina Jonas was held last week at the former Nazi concentration camp in Terezín. A memorial plaque dedicated to rabbi Jonas was unveiled at the former Terezín columbarium where the ashes of some 25,000 victims were stored.

The event was organized by the US Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad, a government agency which monitors historic sites associated with US citizens in central and eastern Europe. The commission chair Lesley Weiss explains the connection.

“Her life and her dedication to Judaism to the values of freedom and rights of women really epitomized what the United States stands for, and what the Jewish community strives for.

“This was a rabbi who for a long time was not recognized – if you look at all the literature, no one has really spoken about her – and when he [commission member Gary Zola] discovered it, he thought this would be a good connection between preservation work and immortalizing of sights and places, and in this case, a person.”

Regina Jonas was born to a Berlin Orthodox family in 1902. She earned a teaching degree, and went on to study at Berlin’s liberal Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums where she graduated in 1930 with a thesis entitled Can a Woman Be a Rabbi According to Halachic Sources? Jonas argued she can, and five years later, she became the first woman to be ordained.

At a time of increasing persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany in the late 1930s, rabbi Jonas served several congregations until 1942 when she was deported to Terezín.

There, she continued to work as a rabbi and teacher in the Nazi-run ghetto; she was involved in a crisis intervention service, and would meet the newly arrived to help them cope with shock and disorientation. But in October 1944, Regina Jonas was deported to Auschwitz where she was murdered in the gas chambers.

Rabbi Jonas’ pioneering work was largely forgotten after the war. But after the fall of communism in eastern Europe, a stash of her personal documents was discovered at an archive in east Berlin.

Nazi concentration camp in Terezín,  photo: Czech Government archive
Among those who paid tribute to Regina Jonas in Terezín was Sally Priesand who became the first American woman rabbi in 1972. She says she had not known about her predecessor at that time.

“I discovered her as everyone else discovered her, and I feel almost like we are kindred spirits. I’m glad we came to dedicate this plaque in order to restore her story, one of the stories that has been hidden so far.”

Regina Jonas’s native country was the cradle of progressive Judaism which also had a strong base in Bohemia and Moravia, says Sylvie Wittmann, the founder of Prague’s liberal community Bejt Simcha.

“Every child has two parents, and so does progressive Judaism: A German Jew and a Czech Jew. Many famous Reform rabbis came from this country like Isaac Mayer Wise, Zacharias Frankel, and many others.

“All Czech Jews spoke German because they were subjected to the Austrian Empire, and the language was German. So the situation was the same as in Germany.

What was the situation like after the war, after the Shoah?

“That’s the question. None of the post-Shoah Czech communities were really Orthodox. Most of them were not Orthodox before the war, and they were not Orthodox after the war, either.”

You founded the progressive congregation Bejt Simcha in the early 1990s. What made you form the group?

“I believe people should build on their roots, and we had no Orthodox Jewry, especially the eastern European Orthodoxy. Also, I was quite upset because suddenly, the Prague Jewish community started ostracizing people who did not have Jewish mothers.

Regina Jonas,  foto: public domain
“Before the war, almost all of the Czech Reform and liberal communities recognized children as Jewish whose fathers were Jewish, if the boys passed bar mitzvah and the girls passed confirmation. The greatest example is the family of the Czech writer Ota Pavel whose mother was not Jewish.

“But suddenly, Orthodoxy was changing the face of Czech Jewry and I was not happy. People did not have a beit – a house, home – anymore, so I was upset. Many people were also fed up so we started this more open and more open-minded community.”

Today, most of the estimated 25,000 to 30,000 Czech Jews are secular. Is there a need for a progressive Czech-born rabbi at all?

“I think that’s the issue. Whether we call the person a spiritual leader, a rabbi or an educator, they should have a Czech background.

“There is rabbi Tomáš Kučera who was among the first three rabbis ordained in Germany after WWII. But he leads a progressive community in Munich, and there are very few Czech rabbis and educators.

There are no Czech madrichim, and I mean for adults, not for children and teenagers. So whatever we call them, we need educators in the Czech language. English is now spoken everywhere but it’s still a foreign language for all of us. So we definitely need Czech speaking educators.”

And do you see a Czech congregation getting a female rabbi in the future?

“There have been some visiting female rabbis here. Some people had problems with it, and others didn’t. But that’s because Czech Jews are not educated in Judaism. That’s the whole thing.

How many Czech Jews ever knew there was some Regina Jonas? They never heard about her. I was the first to write about her in our publications because Czech Jews are not educated in Judaism.”