Image: Photo of Rabbi Regina Jonas believed to have been taken after 1939. (Jewish Women’s Archive)
Tonight was the event I most looked forward to at the CCAR Convention: the Women’s Rabbinic Network gathered for our annual dinner.
One of the most moving aspects of the dinner is roll call. The president calls us by ordination years, beginning with the soon-to-be ordained rabbis: “Class of 2017!” A few of them were with us, and we clapped and cheered for them. Then the newest rabbis: “Class of 2016!” When she got to “Class of 2008!” I stood up with my classmates and enjoyed the warmth. As the years count down, we get to the pioneers, women who carved the way for the rest of us, right down to “Class of 1972!”
At that, one woman stands up. Her name is Rabbi Sally Priesand. We go crazy, standing and cheering for her, because she is the trailblazer for the rest of us, ordained on June 3, 1972. Since that day, the Reform Movement in the United States has ordained over 700 women as rabbis. We serve as congregational rabbis, as military chaplains, as academics, and as counselors. There are major scholars among our ranks, and teachers like myself. Two of us have served as presidents of the CCAR, and many women rabbis are on faculty at rabbinical schools worldwide.
For many years, we thought Rabbi Priesand was the first woman ordained as a rabbi. Only after the fall of the Berlin Wall did the world learn of Rabbi Regina Jonas, a German woman who was ordained in Berlin in 1935 by Rabbi Max Dienemann (1875–1939) director of the Conference of Liberal Rabbis. Rabbi Jonas served the Jews of Berlin and elsewhere faithfully until 1942, when she was sent to the concentration camp at Theresienstadt. There she provided pastoral care, teaching, and services for the Jews in the camp, until she and her mother were transferred to Auschwitz on October 12, 1944. They were likely murdered that same day.
Although Rabbi Jonas worked alongside Rabbi Leo Baeck and the psychologist Viktor Frankl at Theresienstadt, neither of them ever mentioned her after the war. Were it not for the records in East Berlin, including her rabbinic thesis, we would never have known about her.
If you are interested in learning more about women in the rabbinate, there’s a wonderful new book out that explores the topic. It won a National Jewish Book Award this year: The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate. I recommend it highly.
There are now many women rabbis in America and around the world. For synagogue-going Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and Renewal Jews we are no longer a curiosity. Even in the Orthodox world, where change happens very slowly, there are now women with rabbinic educations, doing rabbinic work under various titles. When I looked around that room tonight, I felt honored to be a member of this group of women who have dedicated their lives to Torah and the care of the Jewish People. I felt honored to be part of history.