In the 1980s a popular Jewish legend began that, after leading Jewish feminist Susannah Heschel lectured on the bimah of a conservative Miami syngogue, the resident rabbi denounced Heschel, claiming “a woman belongs on the bimah like an orange belongs on the seder plate.”
Soon after, progressive Jewish households around the world placed oranges on their Passover seder plate.
What many do not know is that, for one, this story is not exactly true (it’s been confused with bread crusts being placed on the plate in solidarity with lesbians) and that, much before the 1980s, a woman had graced the bimah before any oranges ever graced the seder plate. Her name was Regina Jonas and she was the first properly ordained woman rabbi in history.
Regina Jonas, born in 1902, grew up in Berlin’s Jewish slum. Her father, an Orthodox Jewish peddler, instilled a dedication to Jewish studies in all his children, even his daughter.
Regina attended the liberal Berlin’s College for the Scientific Study of Judiasm in 1924. She wrote a thesis entitled “Can a Woman Be a Rabbi According to Halachic Sources?” In her thesis, Regina argued female rabbis are a “cultural necessity” for their distinctly female qualities like compassion, modesty, psychological intuition and accessibility to the young. She concluded her thesis by stating that “prejudice and lack of familiarity stand against women holding rabbinic office.”
Her male academic leaders denied her roundabout request for ordination and she graduated only as an “Academic Teacher of Religion.” Regina—ever determined—applied next to Rabbi Leo Baeck, spiritual leader of German Jewry. Although she had been his pupil at the seminary, Rabbi Baeck also refused to ordain Regina. She continued her fight, and eventually in 1935, a more liberal rabbi agreed to her ordination.
Ironically, once ordained, Regina was granted her fair share of rabbinic work as many of Berlin’s rabbis were already imprisoned at Nazi labor camps or had emigrated to safety. She became a symbol of hope to the remaining Jewish community in Berlin. By 1942, Regina was deported to Nazi work camp Theresienstadt where she continued her work as a rabbi.
In October of 1944, she was deported to Auschwitz. She was likely killed the same day.
All that remains of Regina is a single black and white photograph and a series of her correspondences. This photograph—a snapshot of a confident, stern young woman—serves as a leitmotif for the 2014 award-winning documentary entitled Regina, written and directed by up and coming Hungarian filmmaker Diana Groós.
British actress, Rachel Weisz, is featured as the voice of Regina Jonas in Groós “poetic documentary.” Weisz, the daughter of Jewish emigrants, describes Regina Jonas as “the most significant female figure in 20th Century Judaism” – and yet very few can claim to know her inspirational story. As Weisz said in an interview with UK Metro magazine, “It makes you wonder how many other women have done something extraordinary and we don’t know about them.” In fact, Regina’s story would have been all together forgotten if not for the discovery of her documents after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Regina was the first of thousands of female ordained rabbis in the Reformed, Reconstructionist and Conservative Jewish movements. The ordination of women in the Orthodox community, however, remains hotly debated. The Dean of the Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University, Zevulun Charlop, uses an antiquated argument, claiming women cannot receive “smicha”, ordination, because it is “reserved for men and not women, since beginning with Moses.”
Regina, an Orthodox Jew herself, saw it differently—40 years before Charlop. In one of her letters dated October of 1938, Regina writes, “God planted in our heart skills and a vocation without asking about gender. Therefore, it is the duty of men and women alike to work and create according to the skills given by God.”
To learn more about Diana Groós “poetic documentary” on Regina Jonas, please visit the film’s official website.