Trailblazing rabbi finally gets her due

(October 6, 2014)

Oct. 14 will mark the 70th anniversary of the death of Regina Jonas. You have probably never heard of her. But the story of this extraordinary trailblazing and courageous woman deserves to be known.

Regina Jonas was the first female ordained as a rabbi, in Berlin in 1935. Not until 1972 in the United States was another woman, Rabbi Sally Preisand, ordained by the Reform movement at Hebrew Union College. I followed soon after, the first to be ordained from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 1974. Yet, it really wasn’t until the 1990s that much was known about the life and teachings of Regina Jonas.

In 1942 the Nazis deported Jonas to Terezin, a concentration camp where she taught, preached and comforted fellow inmates. In 1944 she was sent to Auschwitz where she died. For a long time her memory died as well. Those who survived and knew her were silent about her legacy. In part, it was because she was a woman. In part, the issue of female ordination was divisive and after the war there was a pressing need for unity. No group claimed her as a model. She belonged to no one who felt the need to tell her story.

When she was murdered immediately after her arrival in Auschwitz on Oct.14, 1944, no one offered a memorial prayer. There was no grave to visit, no family to remember. In Terezin, this past July, a memorial plaque was dedicated to honor her life. Next week synagogues across the United States of all denominations will include Rabbi Regina Jonas’ name as the Kaddish, the traditional prayer of remembrance is recited.

Regina Jonas’ legacy is important not only for the Jewish community or women, but for all of us. When she was not allowed to come in through the front door of the synagogue to lead services, she entered through the back and stood tall. She did not sacrifice her calling for the sake of unity, because she knew that unity blind to diversity is bound to unravel. In the midst of depravity, she did not abandon her hope for the world. She would not allow the inhumanity of others to diminish her own humanity.

Facing the hatred of a world that scorned her as a woman and rejected her as a Jew, she persevered. She wrote, “Humility before God, selfless devoted love to all His creatures, preserve the world.” At a time when there was little humanity, she encouraged others to work for the blessing of all humankind.

With the escalating acts of violence and hatred that we experience in our own day, her legacy teaches us the importance of wedding two apparently contradictory ideas — power and compassion. Power alone is dangerous; it is unmanageable. Love alone is sentimentality, it is ineffective. Philosopher Martin Buber reminded us that reality requires the “love-deed Yes” and the “power-deed-No.” He wrote, “We cannot avoid using power, cannot escape the compulsion to afflict the world, so let us cautious in diction and mighty in contradiction, love powerfully.”

The story of Regina Jonas almost was lost to us because of gender bias and fear of discord. Recalling her story, let us remember the past, not to live in it, but to live with it as we move into the future. In biblical tradition, whenever “God remembers,” something new happens. When we remember stories like Regina Jonas’, new beginnings await.

Sasso is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck and director of the Religion, Spirituality and the Arts Initiative at Butler University.