Regina Jonas longed to become a rabbi for most of her life but struggled with the restrictions against women in higher education and rabbinical studies. Regina Jonas was born in Berlin on August 3, 1902, the daughter of Wolf and Sara Jonas. She grew up in the Scheunenviertel, a poor, mostly Jewish, neighborhood.
Her father, a merchant who died of tuberculosis in 1913, was probably her first teacher. Early on, Regina Jonas felt her rabbinic vocation. Her passion for Jewish history, Bible, and Hebrew was apparent even in high school, where fellow pupils recall her talking about becoming a rabbi. Her 1930 thesis argued that there was no law forbidding women to become rabbis and that there were many biblical and historical examples of women teaching and arbitrating Jewish law.
Despite her professors’ praise for her thesis, Jonas was only granted a teaching degree. Jonas was the only woman who hoped to be ordained as a rabbi. All her fellow women students were studying for an academic teacher’s degree. She continued to lobby for ordination, which she achieved in 1935. Jonas’s final thesis dealt with the topic “May a woman hold rabbinic office?” Submitted in June 1930, this paper is the first known attempt to find a halakhic basis for the ordination of women. On the opening page of her thesis, Jonas writes: “I personally love this profession and, if ever possible, I also want to practice it.”
On the last page she concludes: “Almost nothing halakhically but prejudice and lack of familiarity stand against women holding rabbinic office.” In Jonas’s opinion, women are especially fit to be rabbis, since “female qualities” such as compassion, social skills, psychological intuition, and accessibility to the young are essential prerequisites for the rabbinate.
Therefore, she argues, female rabbis are “a cultural necessity.” She worked as a pastoral counselor at the Jewish Hospital in Berlin and preached at liberal synagogues as the deportations of rabbis began. Even after her deportation to Theresienstadt she continued to preach, teach, and inspire her fellow inmates until her final deportation to Auschwitz.
Regina Jonas, the first woman to be ordained as a rabbi, was killed in Auschwitz in October 1944. From 1942 to 1944 she performed rabbinical functions in Theresienstadt. Survivors report that her sermons and her pastoral work were especially uplifting and encouraging.