Remembering Regina Jonas

Remembering Regina Jonas

Rabbi Sally Priesand talks about her predecessor

From left, the Four Firsts – Rabba Sara Hurwitz, Rabbi Amy Eilberg, Rabbi Sandy Sasso, and Rabbi Sally Priesand – have been touring and speaking together.

Regina Jonas was the first woman to be ordained as a rabbi.

Sally Priesand was the first American woman to be ordained as a rabbi.

There is therefore a great deal of poetic justice in having Rabbi Priesand introduce a film about Rabbi Jonas.

Rabbi Jonas, who grew up in Berlin, was murdered in Auschwitz. Her story has been forgotten for most of that period from then almost until now, but interest in her story – and in her courage, brains, and charisma – has been reignited.

Rabbi Priesand, who was ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1972, retired from the pulpit of Monmouth Reform Temple in 2006 and now lives in Asbury Park. On Wednesday, April 15, she will introduce the documentary “Regina” at the YJCC in Washington Township. (For more details, see box.)

Last summer, a group of rabbis, educators, and scholars, under the leadership of the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati and the Jewish Women’s Archive in Boston, went to Germany and Terezin, where Rabbi Jonas had been imprisoned on her way to Auschwitz.

The film does not concentrate only on her death, but also on her life, her dedication and determination, the hurdles she overcame, and the career she made for herself before the Nazis demolished it.

“I saw many similarities between her story and mine, and that shocked me,” Rabbi Priesand said.

“Her mentor at the seminary died the year before she was to be ordained,” she continued. (Regina Jonas began her rabbinical studies at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums in 1924.) “The same thing happened to me.

“Dr. Nelson Glick was the president of Hebrew Union College, and he wanted to ordain women. He was my supporter, and behind the scenes he cleaned up a lot of little problems that I never heard about until much later.

“He was the kind of person you stood in awe of. I was a kid, in my early 20s, but one of the things that I did in rabbinical school, when I had difficulties, was to think of the day when he would put his hand on my head and then I’d be a rabbi.

“I was fortunate that his successor was Dr. Albert Gottschalk. I didn’t know it at the time, but there were professionals who tried to talk him out of it. It was only in recent years that I came to realize how hard it was for Dr. Gottschalk to walk in someone else’s shoes, and fulfill someone else’s dream.

“But he had the courage to do it.”

Regina Jonas was not so lucky. “They wouldn’t ordain her, even though she had fulfilled every requirement. She had written her thesis on the subject of whether women could be ordained,” Rabbi Priesand said. “And she came up with many of the same arguments that I had come up with independently.”

In 1935 Rabbi Max Denman of the Liberate Rabbinerverband – the Conference of Liberal Rabbis – finally ordained Regina Jonas.

“At the beginning, she was only allowed to work in homes for the elderly, schools, places like that. But then, as people began to be deported, they allowed her to come into synagogues. She apparently was a very good preacher,” Rabbi Priesand said. “She spoke often about people being allowed to fulfill their God-given potential.”

Rabbi Priesand is part of a group called the Four First – the other members are Rabbi Sandy Sasso, the first Reconstructionist woman ordained as a rabbi; Rabbi Amy Eilberg, her counterpart in the Conservative movement, and Rabba Sara Hurwitz, who is Orthodox and was ordained by Rabbi Avi Weiss. The four have spoken publicly together, and they were together on the trip to Germany. Together, they dedicated a plaque to Regina Jonas, “and we each read a passage that Regina Jonas had written,” Rabbi Priesand said. “We said El Moleh Rachamim and Kaddish for her. That was probably the first time either of those things had been said in her memory.”

Who: Ramapo College’s Gross Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies and the Pascack Valley Jewish Coalition. (The coalition is “a newly formed alliance committed to strengthening and enhancing Jewish life in the region. It is made up of Beth Or in Washington Township, Emanuel in Woodcliff Lake, B’nai Israel in Emerson, Beth Sholom in Park Ridge, and the YJCC.

What: Will sponsor a screening of the documentary “Regina”

When: Wednesday, April 15, at 7 p.m.

Where: At the Bergen County YJCC, 605 Pascack Road, Washington Township

What else: Rabbi Sally Priesand will lead a discussion of the film; in “Regina,” British actress Rachel Weisz provides Rabbi Jonas’s voice.

How: The evening is free. For information, go or call (201) 666-6610, ext. 5782

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