In the early 1990s the women rabbis in Britain officially heard about a German woman rabbi called Regina Jonas, who was ordained in 1935, when Dr Hermann Simon, Director of the Archiv Der Stiftung Neue Synagoge Berlin – Centrum Judaicum (the Archive of New Synagogue Berlin, Central Jewish Foundation)[1] presented the Leo Baeck College in London with her ordination certificate and framed photograph. Fräulein Rabbiner Regina Jonas: a pastor, preacher and teacher in the Berlin Jewish community, and then in the Theresienstadt ghetto, who was murdered in Auschwitz in 1944.[2]

My curiosity aroused I began to do some research – and immediately encountered some conundrums: There is no reference to Regina Jonas in the Encyclopaedia Judaica. There is no reference to Regina Jonas in H.G. Adler’s monumental work, Theresienstadt, 1941-1945, published in 1960[3]. Ditto the testimony gathered by the Council of Jewish communities in the Czech Lands, entitled, Terezin published in 1965. Ditto Richard Fuchs’ article on ‘The Hochschule fur die Wissenschaft des Judentums in the Nazi Period’ published in 1967.[4] Similarly, in his article included in Living Judaism in Spring 1967, in which he argues for the ordination of women, Aryeh Dorfler, Lecturer in Rabbinics at the Leo Baeck College at the time, made no mention of the precedent set by Regina Jonas.[5]

Interestingly, in the account of ‘The Last Days of the Hochschule’ by Alexander Guttman published by Hebrew Union College in 1972 – the year that the first woman, Sally Priesand, was ordained by that institution – Guttman refers to the dissension regarding the proposed ordination of Regina Jonas. And yet, in Response to Modernity – A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism, published in 1988, Michael Meyer makes only passing reference to Regina Jonas in his discussion of the controversy about women’s ordination at the Hebrew Union College (p.379).[6] Even more perplexing, the specialist study, Women of Theresienstadt: Voices from a Concentration Camp by Ruth Schwertfeger, published in 1989,[7] does not include the voice of Regina Jonas – a spectacular omission. Regina Jonas lost her life in Sho’ah, and, it seems that the memory of her life and work also vanished practically without trace.

Why? Of course, there was the problem of written evidence. While Regina Jonas is included in institutional records of the Hochschule, the Judische Gemeinde (Jewish Community) of Berlin, Theresienstadt (Terezin) and Yad Vashem – and there is lively discussion of the special ‘case’ of Regina Jonas in the Jewish newspaper of the time, Israelitisches Familienblatt – until the Berlin Wall came down, Regina Jonas’ letters and papers – including her rabbinic thesis – rested undisturbed in the Bundesarchives (State Archives) in Coswig, 100 kilometres east of Berlin for over four decades.

But the political realities of Germany after 1945 do not explain why the official records were not investigated earlier. And then there is the question of the leading Jewish figures who knew Regina Jonas and survived the Sho’ah – like her teacher at the Hochschule, Leo Baeck, and Viktor Frankl with whom she worked in Terezin. As far as we know, they did not breathe a word about her.[8]

During her early years at the Hochschule (1926-1929), Regina Jonas corresponded with two of her teachers there – Eduard Baneth and Ismar Elbogen – and their letters to her are preserved in the archives[9].   Indeed, there is clear evidence from this correspondence that these distinguished scholars recognised the difficulties she faced as a woman. As early as 1927, Elbogen wrote to Regina Jonas at Purim urging her not to be pessimistic of her chances of getting work. He added that the community should not pay her less than the rate.[10] Perhaps Ismar Elbogen and Eduard Baneth would have remained stout supporters of their colleague following her ordination. But Eduard Baneth, a renowned Talmudist who originally conducted the rabbinic examination of Regina Jonas, died in 1930, during the course of it[11] and Ismar Elbogen, the famous liturgist, emigrated to New York in 1938 where he joined Hebrew Union College and died in 1943.[12] These two scholars did not live to relate their experiences of Regina Jonas.

And what of Leo Baeck, who countersigned Regina Jonas’ ordination certificate in 1942, and who survived the Sho’ah and lived in London for eleven years until his death in 1956? His letters to Regina Jonas span the period from 1934 to 1940, and reveal that he was not just a teacher, he was a friend. Indeed, this is also true of Leo Baeck’s wife, Natalie, who also corresponded with Regina Jonas. What is more, Leo Baeck and Regina Jonas were in Terezin at the same time – although Regina Jonas was deported to the ghetto in November 1942, and dispatched to Auschwitz two years later, and Leo Baeck was incarcerated there from 1943 until its liberation in 1945.

So why didn’t Leo Baeck keep the memory of his student alive and pass it on to the next generation? One can only speculate – and in all fairness to the memory of Leo Baeck himself, speculation is dangerous. Perhaps he did mention her. But if he did, nothing he said seems to have been recorded.[13] Perhaps, too, Ellen Littman, a fellow student of Regina Jonas, who taught Bible at Leo Baeck College in the early years, also mentioned Regina Jonas to her students. But if she did, the knowledge that a woman student at the Hochschule had received s’michah, does not seem to have excited the curiosity of the first post-war generation of European progressive rabbis.

It has only been during the past twenty-five years with the emergence of women rabbis as a collective and the development of Jewish women’s scholarship and filmmaking that the story of Rabbi Regina Jonas has seen the light of day, and her life and work has begun to be acknowledged and remembered. And so we pay tribute in, particular, to Rabbi Dr Elisa Klapheck, for her biography of Regina Jonas,[14] and to Diana Groó, for her film, ‘Regina.’[15] It is our responsibility as Bet Debora, ‘the House of Deborah’ – as Jewish women, as rabbis and scholars and artists – to keep her memory alive, and to ensure that we continue to make history and write history for the sake of the future. Zichronah livrachah – May the memory of Rabbi Regina Jonas become a source of blessing for Jewish life and for all our lives – now and in the future.

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah

Panel: The Politics of Forgetting and Remembrance, Bet Debora Conference, 16 -19 April 2015


[2] My contribution to the panel is adapted from Chapter 4 of my book, Trouble-Making Judaism (David Paul Press, 2012): ‘Fraulein Rabbiner Regina Jonas and the Mysterious Disappearance of the First Woman Rabbi.’ An extract from it has been included in module A332, ‘Why is Religion Controversial?’ The Open University, 2012. The chapter re-works two earlier articles: ‘Rabbi Regina Jonas, 1902-1944: Missing Link in a Broken Chain’, n Sheridan, Sybil, Ed., Hear Our Voice. Women Rabbis Tell Their Stories (SCM Press, 1994) and ‘The Discovery of Fraulein Rabbiner Regina Jonas: Making Sense of Our Inheritance’ (European Judaism, 95:2, December 1995). Regina Jonas was ordained on December 27, 1935. While she was the first woman rabbi, it is important to be aware of other women, who occupied positions of religious leadership who were not ordained. Long before Regina Jonas was born, Lily Montagu became one of the religious leaders of the emerging movement of Liberal Judaism in Britain. She officiated at Shabbat services, delivered sermons and conducted life-cycle ceremonies (See Jacobi, Margaret, ‘Lily Montagu’ in Sheridan, Sybil, Ed., Hear Our Voice. Women Rabbis Tell Their Stories. [SCM Press, London, 1994]). A few years later, on the other side of the Atlantic, there were two other non-ordained women who fulfilled rabbinic responsibilities. In 1938, Tehilla Lichtenstein became the first woman to serve her congregation as rabbi after the death of her husband, Rabbi Morris Lichtenstein. Tehilla Lichtenstein also served as Leader of the Society for Jewish Science from 1938 until her death in 1973. Likewise, from 1951-54, Paula Ackerman, served as rabbi to a congregation in Meridian, Mississippi, after the death of her husband, Rabbi William Ackerman (See http: // It was as early as 1893 that a young woman called Rachel Frank, began attending classes at Hebrew Union College HUC), and introduced the notion of women rabbis to an American rabbinic institution. However, she did not complete her studies – and neither did another woman who attended the seminary at the same time, Lena Aronsohn (See: Lesbian Rabbis. The First Generation edited by Rebecca T. Alpert, Sue Levi Elwell, and Shirley Idelson [Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, New Jersey, and London, 2001], p.13). Meanwhile, around the same time that Lily Montagu was teaching and preaching in England, Henrietta Szold became a special student at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in 1903, but was admitted on the understanding that she would not seek ordination (ibid.). In 1921, the issue of ordaining a woman rabbi was first raised formally after Martha Neumark, a student at the HUC in the second year of studies, and daughter of an HUC professor, asked permission to lead High Holy Day services. Her request was granted and the college President convened a faculty committee to consider the issue of women’s ordination. The HUC faculty and the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) concluded that there was no reason not to ordain women, but the HUC Board of Governors agreed in 1923 to maintain the policy of ordaining only men as rabbis (See Meyer, Michael, Response to Modernity. A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism (OUP, New York and Oxford, 1988), p.379). For a history of women religious leaders, both, pre- and post-ordination, see also: Baskin, Judith R., ‘Women Who Would Be Rabbis: A History of Women’s Ordination, 1889-1985 (review)’. American Jewish History, Volume 88, Number 1, March, pp. 171-174 (John Hopkins University Press, 2000).

[3] Theresienstadt. 1941-1945. Das Antlitz einer Zwangsgemeinschaft, Geschichte Soziologie Psychologie. Mohr, Tübingen, 1955. English edition published in 1960 by H.G. Adler – who was deported from Prague to Theresienstadt in February 1942 together with his wife and her family.

[4] In the Leo Baeck Institute Year Book (XII) of 1967.

[5] My thanks to Rabbis Jonathan Magonet and John Rayner, z”l, for drawing my attention to the articles by Fuch and Dorfler respectively.

[6] Michael Meyer, Response to Modernity. A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism. (Oxford University Press, 1988). He writes: ‘When [women’s ordination] was raised again (note: the first time was in 1922 with the case of Martha Neumark) among Sisterhood leaders in 1958, even they were initially divided. By then, however, one woman, Regina Jonas, had received private ordination upon completing her studies at the Liberal seminary in Berlin, and for a brief time had served as a rabbi before perishing in the Holocaust.’ (p.379).

[7] Ruth Schwertfeger, Women of Theresienstadt. Voices from a Concentration Camp, Berg, 1989.

[8] Leo Baeck’s biographer, Albert Friedlander, z”l, does not recall any reference made by Leo Baeck to Regina Jonas (Private conversation, 20.6.94) and his biography, Leo Baeck, Teacher of Theresienstadt, Holt, Rinehart, Winston, New York, 1968 certainly makes no reference to her. As for Viktor Frankl, he discussed his experience of the camps in his books From Death Camp to Existentialism, later revised and included in a larger work, Man’s Search for Meaning. An Introduction to Legotherapy, (Hodder and Stroughton, London, 1962). However, although he worked with Regina Jonas in Theresienstadt, this text, at least, does not mention her.

[9] 75D JO 1 is the Bundesarchives reference no. for the letters addressed to Regina Jonas.

[10] ibid.

[11] See ‘Tribute to Rabbi Regina Jonas of Berlin’ by Hans Hirschberg (Leo Baeck College News 1993, p.46).

[12] Fuchs, 1967, p.23.

[13] See note 7.

[14] Fräulein Rabbiner Jonas. The Story of the First Woman Rabbi by Elisa Klapheck. (Jossey Bass, 2004). Translated from the German by Toby Axelrod. Following the publication of Elisa Klapheck’s biography, Toby Axelrod’s article, “My years with Regina Jonas” was included in: Bridges. A Jewish Feminist Journal, Autumn 2009, Vol. 14, No.2, pp.27-31. The first woman to conduct research on Regina Jonas was Katharina von Kellenbach, whose findings were published in the journal Schlagenbrut in 1992. Five years later, a brief biography of Regina Jonas by Rachel Monika Herweg “Regina Jonas (1902–1944)” was included in Meinetwegen ist die Welt erschaffen, Das intellektuelle Vermächtnis des deutschsprachigen Judentums. 58 Porträts, edited by Hans Erler, Ernst Ludwig Ehrlich, and Ludger Heid (Frankfurt, New York: 1997).

[15] ‘Regina’ by Diana Groó, a UK &Hungarian co-production, was produced in 2013.