Since her ordination in 1972, Rabbi Sally Priesand has often had to correct people who called her the “first woman rabbi.” That achievement actually belonged to a woman whose story was almost forgotten, Rabbi Regina Jonas, a German who was ordained in 1935 — and killed in Auschwitz in 1944.
Priesand, rabbi emeritus of Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls — who says that Jonas’s example was part of what inspired her to seek ordination — was in fact the first woman rabbi ordained in the United States. She joined a very select group of other women, each the first in her own denomination or country, in events in Berlin and Prague last month, to honor Jonas.
Highlights of their five-day tour, organized by the Jewish Women’s Archive and the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, included installing a plaque in Jonas’s memory at the Terezin concentration camp near Prague, where she was initially interned, and visiting Centrum Judaicum Archive, where her documents have been kept. Before being deported to Theresienstadt, Jonas gave her documents to the Berlin Jewish community for safekeeping. They were rediscovered after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and then later stored in the archive, which was established the following year.
Priesand, who served as religious leader at MRT for 25 years until her retirement in 2006, had been expecting a much bigger trove. “They came out with this little box,” she said. “Her whole life was in this little box. And it reminded me of how important it is to tell the story.”
She said, “I decided I wanted to be a rabbi when I was 16 years old. At that time, I had never heard of Regina Jonas. I was well into my rabbinic training before one of my professors mentioned her to me. I discovered, however, that very little had been written about her and that basically her story had been lost, as was the case for so many other women in the Jewish community whose stories were hidden away.
“I am privileged to speak about my career in congregations and communities all across our country,” she continued, “and when I do, whether individually or as part of the Four Firsts, I always tell a little bit about Regina Jonas and give her credit for being the first woman rabbi. In so doing, I hope to bring honor to her memory.”
In the July 22 program in Berlin honoring Jonas, the rabbis discussed the challenges facing female rabbis today and shared stories about inspiration and obstacles.
In addition to Priesand, panelists included Amy Eilberg, who in 1985 became the first woman ordained by the Conservative movement; Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, who in 1974 became the first woman Reconstructionist rabbi; Jaqueline Tabick, who became the first female rabbi ordained in the United Kingdom, in 1975, and today is convener of the Rabbinic Court of the British Reform movement; and Alina Treiger, who in 2010 became the second woman rabbi ordained in Germany.
The program’s one Orthodox woman rabbi — Sara Hurwitz, who was ordained with the title of rabba in 2009 by Rabbis Avi Weiss and Daniel Sperber — was unable to reach Berlin due to the temporary closure of Ben-Gurion Airport.
Hurwitz, speaking to the group via cell phone, said that although Jonas’s “voice was silenced, it is thanks to her courage” that they can guarantee that Jewish learning for women “not only survives but also thrives.”
NJJN staff writer Elaine Durbach contributed to this story.