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August 3: Regina Jonas, the First Woman Rabbi

August 3, 2014
Jonas-ReginaRegina Jonas, the first woman in history known to be ordained as a rabbi, was born in Berlin on this date in 1902. Her doctoral dissertation at the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies-Academy for the Science of Judaism was titled, “Can a Woman Be a Rabbi According to Halakhic Sources?” and concluded YES! — but she was denied ordination by several rabbinical bodies and by Leo Baeck, her teacher at the seminary, who feared precipitating a major split in German Jewry. In 1935, she at last received semikha (ordination) from the Liberal Rabbis’ Association in Offenbach am Main. Although Jonas worked in several rabbinical roles and lectured in numerous synagogues, she was unable to find a pulpit before the Gestapo arrested her on November 5, 1942 and confined her to the Terezin concentration camp. There she helped Victor Frankl build a crisis intervention service to avert inmate suicides; her role was to meet the trains at the station and help people process their losses and their disorientation. Jonas served the community in Terezin for two years before being deported to Auschwitz, where she was murdered at age 42. “Almost nothing halakhically but prejudice and lack of familiarity stand against women holding rabbinic office.” —Rabbi Regina Jonas