You might be surprised to learn that the world’s first female rabbi was Regina Jonas, who was ordained in 1935 in Berlin. A series of events has just taken place in Germany and the Czech Republic, attended by a number of pioneering female rabbis, honouring her memory and work. Our own Rabbi Dr Jackie Tabick, the UK’s first female rabbi and Convener of the Reform Beit Din for the UK and Europe was there and reflects here on her experiences.
Last week I visited Terezín for the first time to honour the memory and work of the world’s first woman rabbi, Regina Jonas. It was a trip planned by various American organisations including the American Jewish Archives, Jewish Women Archives, the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad and the Hebrew Union College. The group had already been in Berlin for several days visiting important sites associated with Rabbi Regina’s life and work before I was able to join them. When I was ordained in 1975, there had been a rumour, but nothing more than that, that there had been a woman privately ordained before the Shoah, but it was not till the Berlin Wall came down that archives were found describing her life and work.
That first night in Berlin, a panel was formed of ‘first’ rabbis: Sally Priesand, ordained by Hebrew Union College in 1972; Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 1974, Amy Eilberg the first woman ordained by the Conservative movement in 1985, Sara Hurwutz who privately received a Modern Orthodox ordination in 2009, Alina Treiger, the first woman to be ordained in Germany since the war, by the Geiger College in 2010 and me, ordained by Leo Baeck College in 1975.
It was the first time I had had the opportunity to talk to these amazing pioneers; the internet was not around in 1975 and even international phone calls were something of an adventure back then. But the similarities between Sally, Sandy and I were amazing: we all first thought about becoming rabbis at the age of 16 and none of us had been involved in the feminist movement, we all had just wanted to learn and to serve.
Hanging over us, literally as well as figuratively, was the image of Rabbi Jonas. Her bravery, her wisdom, her steadfastness at obtaining and then maintaining her role as a rabbi humbled me. We dedicated a plaque in her honour in Terezín. It bears a quotation from her last sermon before she was deported to Auschwitz: ‘’To be blessed by God means to bless, to so good and to be loyal to others wherever one goes, in every life situation.’ It was an honour to be present as part of that group.
Pictured, left to right, Rabbis Jackie Tabick, Amy Eilberg, Sandy Eisenberg Sasso and Sally Priesand (Toby Axelrod)