Berlin, Germany


Regina Jonas


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Regina Jonas

Memorial tablet for Regina Jonas, first female rabbi to be ordained.

Personal details


3 August 1902

Berlin, Germany


12 December 1944 (aged 42)

Auschwitz concentration camp, Nazi Germany



Regina Jonas (3 August 1902 – 12 December 1944) was a Berlin-born rabbi.[1] In 1935, she became the first woman to be ordained as a rabbi[1] (though there had been some previous women, such as the Maiden of Ludmir and Asenath Barzani, who acted in similar roles without being ordained).

Early life

She became orphaned from her father when she was very young. Like many women at that time, she followed a career as a teacher but was not content. In Berlin, she enrolled at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, Higher Institute for Jewish Studies—the Academy for the Science of Judaism, and took seminary courses for liberal rabbis and educators. There she graduated as an "Academic Teacher of Religion."

With the goal of becoming a rabbi, Jonas wrote a thesis that would have been an ordination requirement. Her topic was "Can a Woman Be a Rabbi According to Halachic Sources?" Her conclusion, based on Biblical, Talmudic, and rabbinical sources, was that she should be ordained. However, the Talmud professor responsible for ordinations refused her because she was a woman. Jonas applied to Rabbi Leo Baeck, spiritual leader of German Jewry, who had taught her at the seminary. He also refused because the ordination of a female rabbi would have caused massive intra-Jewish communal problems with the Orthodox rabbinate in Germany.

On December 27, 1935, Regina Jonas received her semicha and was ordained by the liberal Rabbi Max Dienemann, who was the head of the Liberal Rabbis' Association, in Offenbach am Main.[1] Jonas found work as a chaplain in various Jewish social institutions while attempting to find a pulpit.

Persecution and death

Because of Nazi persecution, many rabbis emigrated and many small communities were without rabbinical support. The duress of Nazi persecution made it impossible for Jonas to preach in a synagogue, and she was soon ordered into forced labor. Despite this, she continued her rabbinical work as well as teaching and preaching.

On November 4, 1942, Regina Jonas had to fill out a declaration form that listed her property, including her books. Two days later, all her property was confiscated "for the benefit of the German Reich." The next day, November 5, 1942, the Gestapo arrested her and she was deported to Theresienstadt. She continued her work as a rabbi, and Viktor Frankl, the well-known psychologist, asked her for help in building a crisis intervention service to improve the possibility of surviving by helping to prevent suicide attempts. Her particular job was to meet the trains at the station. There she helped people cope with shock and disorientation.

Regina Jonas worked tirelessly in the Theresienstadt concentration camp for two years—her work including giving lectures on different topics—until she was deported to Auschwitz in mid-October 1944, where she was murdered two months later. She was 42 years old.

Of the many others who lectured in Theresienstadt including Leo Baeck,[2] none ever mentioned her name or work.[3]


Regina Jonas's work was rediscovered in 1991 by Dr. Katharina von Kellenbach, a researcher and lecturer in the department of philosophy and theology at St. Mary's College of Maryland, who had been born in Germany.[4] In 1991 she came to Germany to find material for a paper on the attitude of the religious establishment (Protestant and Jewish) to women seeking ordination in 1930s Germany.[4] She found an envelope containing the only known existing photo of Regina Jonas, as well as Jonas's rabbinical diploma, teaching certificate, seminary dissertation and other personal documents, in an archive in East Berlin.[4][5] It is largely due to her discovery that Regina Jonas is now widely known.[5]


A hand-written list of 24 of her lectures entitled "Lectures of the One and Only Woman Rabbi, Regina Jonas," still exists and can still be found in the archives of Theresienstadt. Five lectures were about the history of Jewish women, five dealt with Talmudic topics, two dealt with Biblical themes, three with pastoral issues, and nine offered general introductions to Jewish beliefs, ethics, and the festivals.

A large portrait of Regina Jonas on a kiosk that tells her story was placed in Hackescher Market in Berlin, as part of a citywide exhibition titled “Diversity Destroyed: Berlin 1933-1938-1945,” to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the National Socialists’ rise to power in 1933 and the 75th anniversary of the November pogrom, or Kristallnacht, in 1938.[6]

In 1995, Bea Wyler, who had studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York, became the first female rabbi to serve in postwar Germany, in the city of Oldenburg.[7]

In 2010, Alina Treiger, who studied at the Abraham Geiger College in Berlin, became the first female rabbi to be ordained in Germany since Regina Jonas.[8]

In 2011, Antje Deusel became the first German-born woman to be ordained as a rabbi in Germany since the Nazi era.[9] She was ordained by Abraham Geiger College.[9][10]

2013 saw the premiere of the documentary Regina,[11] a British, Hungarian, and German co-production [12] directed by Diana Groo.[13] The film concerns Jonas's struggle to be ordained and her romance with Hamburg rabbi Josef Norden.[14][15]

On April 5, 2014 an original chamber opera, also titled "Regina" and written by composer Elisha Denburg and librettist Maya Rabinovitch, premiered[16] in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. It was commissioned and performed by the independent company Essential Opera and featured soprano Erin Bardua in the role of Regina, and soprano Maureen Batt as the student who uncovers her forgotten legacy in the archives of East Berlin in 1991. The opera is scored for five voices, clarinet, violin, accordion, and piano.

In 2014 a memorial plaque to Regina Jonas was unveiled at the former Nazi concentration camp Theresienstadt in the Czech Republic, where she had been deported to and worked in for two years.[17][18]


  1. Boulouque, Clémence. Nuit ouverte. ed. Flammarion, Paris 2007. Novel. (See Review by Claudio Magris "Una Donna per rabbino" Corriere della Sera, September 2007)

  2. Klapheck, Elisa. Fräulein Rabbiner Jonas: The Story of the First Woman Rabbi, Toby Axelrod (Translated) ISBN 0-7879-6987-7

  3. Makarova, Elena, Sergei Makarov & Victor Kuperman. University Over The Abyss. The story behind 520 lecturers and 2,430 lectures in KZ Theresienstadt 1942–1944. Second edition, April 2004, Verba Publishers Ltd. Jerusalem, Israel, 2004. ISBN 965-424-049-1, (Preface: Prof. Yehuda Bauer)

  4. Milano, Maria Teresa."Regina Jonas.Vita di una rabbina Berlino 1902 Auschwitz 1944" ed. EFFATA' 2012

  5. Sarah, Elizabeth. "Rabbiner Regina Jonas 1902–1944: Missing Link in a Broken Chain" in Sheridan, Sybil (ed.): Hear our voice: women in the British rabbinate, Studies in Comparative Religion series. Paperback, 1st North American edition. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1998. ISBN 157003088X

  6. Von Kellenbach, Katharina. "Denial and Defiance in the Work of Rabbi Regina Jonas" in In God's Name: Genocide and Religion in the 20th Century (Chapter 11), Phyllis Mack and Omar Bartov, eds., Berghahn Books, New York, 2001, ISBN 978-1571813022

  7. Von Kellenbach, Katharina. "'God Does Not Oppress Any Human Being' The Life and Thought of Rabbi Regina Jonas," in Leo Baeck Year Book, 1994