Andrew R. Berger, Chair, HUC-JIR Board of Governors
I recently participated in an incredibly inspiring and eye-opening experience: a trip to Germany and the Czech Republic, honoring Regina Jonas. Who? It’s a little-known fact that Regina Jonas, Rabbi Regina Jonas, was the first woman ever ordained as a Rabbi, in Germany in 1935.
I was honored to be a member of a delegation organized by the College-Institute's American Jewish Archives (AJA) and by the Jewish Women's Archive (JWA), ably co-led by Rabbi Gary P. Zola, Executive Director of the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the AJA and by the JWA's founding Director, Gail Reimer. Until I learned about Rabbi Jonas, I had been under the impression that Sally Priesand had been the first woman rabbi, ordained by HUC-JIR in 1972. Sally, of course, knew better, and has been acknowledging Rabbi Jonas for years, including in her own book.
When I first learned about Regina Jonas and her ordination in Germany, the birthplace of liberal Judaism in Europe, I assumed she was raised as a liberal Jew. Not so. She was raised in a traditional, Orthodox family, and attended and taught in Orthodox schools. But she simply did not understand why a woman could not be a Rabbi. She wrote:
“God has placed abilities and callings in our hearts, without regard to gender. Thus each of us has the duty, whether man or woman, to realize those gifts God has given. If you look at things this way, one takes woman and man for what they are: human beings.”
After completion of her studies, she received smicha from liberal rabbis. She remained in Nazi Germany and served the Jewish Community of Berlin. Her responsibilities increased as more and more male rabbis were deported to camps or escaped. Some believe she, too, had the chance to escape Nazi Germany, but she remained to tend to her people. In late 1942 she was deported to the Terezin (also known as Theresienstadt) concentration camp near Prague. There she spent two years serving her fellow prisoners, before she was transferred to Auschwitz and murdered in late 1944.
We were privileged to be joined on the trip not only by Sally Priesand, but by three other “pioneers”: the first woman ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Rabbi Sandy Sasso (1974), the first woman ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Amy Eilberg (1985), and the first woman ordained as orthodox clergy, Rabba Sara Hurwitz (2009). Many other distinguished rabbis, scholars, and lay leaders also joined the delegation, including our colleague, Blair Marks, President of the Women for Reform Judaism and a member of the HUC-JIR Board of Governors, and Denise Eger, a distinguished HUC-JIR alumna and President-Elect of the CCAR. Rabbi Kinneret Shiryon, an esteemed HUC-JIR alumna and the first woman rabbi in Israel, made the heart-wrenching decision to leave Eretz Yisrael during these difficult times to join us as well.
By the end of our journey together, we truly became a community. We shared so many moving and intensely personal experiences together, with the following four highlights:
Berlin: Historic Forum on the Challenges and Experiences of Pioneering Women Rabbis: We attended a panel discussion including all four of these “pioneering” women, together with the first woman ordained by the Leo Baeck College in London, Rabbi Jacqueline Tabick (1975), and the first woman ordained at the Abraham Geiger College in Berlin, Rabbi Adina Traiger (2010). During the forum, each of them had the opportunity to tell her personal story, including her challenges, and how women have changed the rabbinate. Women bring a distinctive perspective to the rabbinate, which can only make Jewish life richer and better. They pushed the envelope, but exercised patience and restraint in effecting change. Glass ceilings have been encountered, and while many are being shattered, many remain. We heard that women are now becoming Senior Rabbis in some of our largest congregations, but also that that need not be the aim of everyone in the rabbinate. Much progress has been made, but there is more to do: for example, we need to ask ourselves if our congregations and institutions are truly gender-blind in hiring and promotion.
An interesting contrast was expressed by Rabbi Traiger, for whom women rabbis are the norm, not an innovation. It was difficult for her to relate to the challenges faced by Sally and her pioneering colleagues. Such is the sacrifice and also the blessing of being pioneers, on the "bleeding edge" – the wounds they suffered smoothed the path for those who follow in their footsteps.
Terezin: Dedication and Remembrance: At Terezin we dedicated a plaque in Rabbi Jonas’s memory, sponsored by the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad, initiated by Dr. Zola, a member of the Commission, and funded by HUC-JIR, which is the rightful heir of the Hochschule where Regina Jonas studied. Before the ceremony, we were addressed by a survivor of Terezin, Helga Weissova-Hoskova, a child artist who shared her story and paintings of daily life with us. She participated in the moving dedication ceremony, as did her son and granddaughter, playing Kol Nidre on cellos. I’ll never be able to hear that prayer again without recalling that moment. At the ceremony, each of our pioneering rabbis read from Rabbi Jonas’s own words. It was simultaneously sad and uplifting.
Prague: Kabbalat Shabbat: We attended services with members of the Prague Jewish Community in a small, modest basement room. We were united by our faith, music, and Hebrew. After the service, we all sang the Kiddush proudly and loudly in that underground room; I thought to myself “I hope Hitler can hear us in Hell!”
We then shared Shabbat dinner, which was filled with conversation and song. Before Birkat Hamazon, Rabbi Laura Geller invited each of the women rabbis to stand and share an experience from her past that exemplified her unique journey to the rabbinate. Some stories were hilarious, others bittersweet – all were inspiring.
Prague: Shabbat Morning: On our last day together, we attended Shabbat services at the Spanish Synagogue in Prague, whose architecture and style are reminiscent of Central Synagogue in New York and Plum Street Temple in Cincinnati. Our four pioneering Rabbis planned and participated in the service. It may have been the first service in history co-led by Rabbis, let alone women Rabbis, from all four of these movements. There is an old adage "Two Jews, Three Opinions." In connection with the conflict in Gaza, I recently heard this amendment: "Two Jews, Three Opinions, One Heart." That was exactly how I felt during this service.
As we ended our time together that night with Havdalah, we talked about ways to keep alive the story of Regina Jonas.
It was a privilege for me to join in honoring Rabbi Regina Jonas and equally meaningful to have the opportunity to get to know and learn from these amazing pioneering rabbis. Each of them overflowed with intellect, candor, dignity, and good humor; in a word, menschlichkeit. It was clear each of them has the utmost respect for each other. And I have a much greater appreciation for what they have done for the Jewish people, and the utmost respect and admiration for all of them.