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Regina Jonas

Regina Jonas (1902–1944) was the world’s first female rabbi.

Born in 1902 to an Orthodox Jewish family in Berlin’s Scheunenviertel neighborhood, her childhood was marked by material hardship and a strict religious upbringing.

Even during her schooling at the public Oberlyzeum in Berlin’s district of Weissensee, Jonas displayed a profound interest in Judaism and expressed a desire to become a rabbi. She pursued this goal despite the prevailing restrictions on women in roles of religious leadership at the time. In 1924, she began her studies at the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies in Berlin, financing her education by teaching at various Berlin schools.

Jonas graduated in 1930. Her thesis, entitled “Can a Woman Hold the Office of Rabbi?”, was a bold step that challenged traditional gender roles in Judaism. Despite her thesis being well-received, she initially could not take the oral rabbinical exam due to the sudden death of her primary supervisor, Professor Eduard Baneth.

It was not until 1935, a time when the Nazi regime was intensifying its repressive measures against Jews in Germany, that Jonas was ordained by Rabbi Max Dienemann, the head of the Liberal Rabbis’ Association. She thus became the first ordained female rabbi in history. Despite this historic achievement, she did not lead her own congregation and mainly worked in teaching and pastoral care. She spoke at Reform synagogues, cared for the sick and elderly and worked at a women’s prison.

As the deportations of Jews from Germany began in 1941, Jonas’s circumstances took a significant turn for the worse. On 6 November 1942, she and her mother were deported to the Theresienstadt Ghetto, where she resumed her pastoral work despite the extreme circumstances. Jonas held lectures and offered support to newcomers, helping them cope with the shock of deportation. Tragically, in October 1944, she was deported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camp, where she was murdered.

“Our Jewish people has been planted into history by God as a blessed people. To be ‘blessed’ by God means to spread blessings, kindness and loyalty wherever you go, in every situation of life.”

— Regina Jonas (1944)

There are few surviving documents that give a firsthand impression of Regina Jonas. One of them is a December 1938 letter she wrote to Martin Buber describing her life in Berlin at that time and seeking advice from the famous professor, who had already emigrated to Palestine, about the prospects of her settling there herself. This letter, a vivid testament to her era, has been digitised by the National Library in Jerusalem and is available online. The letter and an explanatory article by Melody Barron can be found at the following link: