Regina Jonas and me

Saturday, August 20, 2022

I am honored and humbled to have had the opportunity to share the remarkable and long-hidden story of Regina Jonas, the world’s first ordained woman rabbi, for the New York Times’ Overlooked series.

This piece is so far from my usual fare as a science and environmental writer, part of me feels the need to explain why I wrote this story. It’s also personal in ways that most of my writing isn’t. So for anyone interested, here’s the back story.

Last summer I spent two months in Berlin as an Arthur F. Burns fellow. On a rainy Sunday in September, I made my way to the Jewish Museum. The weather matched my mood. I had been in Berlin for almost a month and a half, and things weren’t going particularly well. I was there on a journalism fellowship, but I didn’t feel like I was doing much journalism. The stories I was pursuing didn’t seem to be coming together. I was also feeling lonely and isolated in a city I had hoped would feel more like a second home.

The museum offered an escape—something to dive into for a few hours. I also hoped it could help me think about my own identity. Although the Jewish half of my family is from eastern Europe, not Germany, I’ve long been intrigued by the key role that Germany played as the birthplace of Ashkenazi Jews. Obviously the history is dominated in the public perception by the Holocaust, but I was eager to explore the rest of it, in hopes it could help illuminate what, exactly, a half-Jewish, half-German identity means.

The exhibit traced the history of Germany’s Jews from their obscure beginnings along the Rhine—coincidentally, where much of my German family lives now. Though the broad outlines were familiar, the museum helped me fill in details. I was particularly struck this time by the Jewish enlightenment—how Germany, a country usually thought of as being disastrous for Jews, was also a place where Jews made great strides and innovations, not least of all the birth of the Reform movement, and where thinkers like Moses Mendelssohn flourished.

I was less impressed with a section devoted to Richard Wagner, a non-Jew with well-known anti-Semitic attitudes who later became a favorite of Hitler. Maybe contemporary Jews’ conflicted feelings about Wagner (many loved his music despite his odious views) are worth a mention, but an entire room? Please.

Shortly after that I came to a tiny exhibit devoted to women rabbis, and the first was someone named Regina Jonas, who had been ordained in 1935. I was shocked that I had never heard of Jonas and, moreover, that the entire world’s female rabbinical tradition could have been born in Nazi-era Germany.

It hit me. Germany had been the world center of liberal Jewish progress for a century and a half. And here was a woman who decided to launch perhaps the boldest experiment of all: to become a rabbi. She could not have known that her achievement would mark the end of this period of Jewish flourishing, rather than the opening of a new phase. Had history gone differently, she could have been the matriarch of a great tradition of women rabbis. Instead, she perished in Auschwitz and ended up with one small photo and a couple paragraphs in a corner of the museum, in the shadow of Wagner.

The enormity of what had been lost—the 6 million—became personified, and yes, I wept in the middle of the museum. Luckily, with my covid mask on, I had complete anonymity.

When I got home I immediately went online to see what more I could learn about Jonas. I read articles and talked to my long-time friend, Laura Bellows, who told me that Jonas was well known among her community of American women rabbis. But clearly she was not known more widely, especially on our side of the Atlantic. The New York Times had barely mentioned her in a story on the second woman rabbi—Sally Priesand, ordained in 1972—and few other American outlets (outside of Jewish ones) did either.

I knew of the Times’ Overlooked series, which features women and others who by today’s standards deserve a Times obituary, but didn’t get one at the time of their death. If ever there was someone fit for this series, it was the first woman rabbi in all of history. So I thought, at least. By the end of that afternoon, I had figured out who edited the series and sent a pitch. It took some following up, but she eventually accepted the piece.

It’s funny that I felt so compelled to write about Jonas, given that we are clearly not like-minded souls. She was far more conservative and religious than I am and probably would have found my half-hearted approach toward practicing Judaism disappointing. But we do share the experience of trying to merge Jewish and German identities. She pushed for German Jews to hold onto their identities at a time when Germany was casting Jews as outsiders, despite all attempts to assimilate. I find myself asking how to embody these two identities—one from my father, the other from my mother—and to reconcile my desire for Germany to be once again a safe and fruitful home for Jews with the obvious evidence that the country is not there yet, and may never fully be. Perhaps there was also a shared feeling of being an outsider.

And I deeply admire Jonas’s determination, perseverance and ultimate triumph. But there’s something more than that: I felt that Jonas’s obscurity was an injustice—one perpetrated first and foremost by the Nazis, but then perpetuated by people who knew her story yet refused to share it, and ultimately by an indifferent world. I felt myself pushed forward by a feeling that I was in a position to help make things right.

I want to be clear about what I did not do. I did not discover Jonas; that was done by the German religion scholar Katharina von Kellenbach, from whose archival work in the early 1990s all other scholarship on Jonas follows. I did not write the definitive version of her life; that accomplishment belongs to rabbi Elisa Klapheck. I also want to be clear that Jonas’s story in no way diminishes Priesand’s achievement; she had to overcome many of the same barriers when getting ordained in the early 1970s in Cincinnati. And many other women rabbis have overcome barriers as well.

It’s also important to note that a lot of progress has been made. Women now occupy some of the most prominent rabbinical roles. I was excited to hear from my friend Laura that women rabbis are now so common, especially among the more liberal denominations, that young boys can be heard asking whether men can also become rabbis. At the same time, we have to ask how many more women did not get the opportunity because of the Holocaust, and because Jonas’s barrier-breaking story was suppressed for so long.

I view my role less as discoverer or documenter than connector. I saw an opportunity to connect Jonas with a much larger, 21st-century audience. Now that the story is published, it’s out of my hands. I hope it will inspire people to pursue their dreams even when broader society tells them no. I hope it can also serve as a statement that Jews have always had a place in Germany, and still do. Yes, Germany was where unspeakable crimes were committed, and that must never be forgotten. But it was also the one place in the world that was just open and modern enough to enable a poor Jewish girl to have a dream and make that dream reality. The world can be paradoxical. In our own troubled times, I think that is a point worth pondering.