This evening I was privileged to see history in the making, attending a forum honoring the first woman rabbi, Germany’s Regina Jonas. Jonas was ordained by Rabbi Max Dienemann in 1935, but her memory had been largely lost to history until some of her papers were discovered in 1991. Co-sponsored by the American Jewish Archives and Jewish Women’s Archive, the forum was held at Centrum Judaicum in what was once the women’s section of the New Synagogue in Berlin and featured a panel discussion among modern “firsts:”
- Rabbi Sally Priesand (first woman ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, 1972)
- Rabbi Sandy Sasso (first woman ordained from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, 1974)
- Rabbi Jacqueline Tabick (first woman ordained from Leo Baeck College, 1975)
- Rabbi Amy Eilberg (first woman ordained at Jewish Theological Seminary, 1985)
- Rabba Amy Hurwitz (first Orthodox woman ordained, by Rabbi Avi Weiss and Rabbi Daniel Sperber, 2009)
- Rabbi Alina Treiger (first woman ordained from Abraham Geiger College, 2010)
Approximately 100 people heard these pioneers discuss how they chose to become rabbis, addressing not only the obstacles and naysayers, but also the supporters, mentors, and advocates they encountered along the way. Several recall using humor to connect with skeptics as well as with those who simply did not know what to think of a woman rabbi. Each had a strong commitment to her role in preparing the way for those who would follow her… while none had chosen this path with the intent of making history, they certainly recognized that they were being watched and were setting important precedents.
Each of these leaders gave her perspective on what changes when the rabbi is a woman. They credited women in the rabbinate with sweeping changes in liturgy and theology, making the sanctuary accessible to women, providing a clergy member with whom a woman can be comfortable discussing the most personal of topics, and giving women a way to see themselves in Torah. Rabbi Sasso characterized this last point as “nothing short of a revolution.”
Rabbi Hurwitz was not able to travel from Israel due to the flight bans currently in place, but she actively participated by phone. Rabbi Tabick expressed her pleasure at finally meeting her North American counterparts in person. As the program concluded, all women rabbis in attendance moved to the stage for introductions and pictures–an incredibly emotional moment for all present.
The most important message of the evening? Tell the story!
Women rabbis are being encouraged to send their files to the appropriate archives to ensure those records will be available to future researchers, not running the risk of being lost as Rabbi Jonas’ story nearly was. As we know from WRJ’s Centennial year, archival records can be an extraordinary and invaluable resource.
Speaking of Women of Reform Judaism… WRJ was recognized in particular by Rabbi Treiger, who cited WRJ’s sponsorship and after the program told me quite directly that she would likely not be a rabbi if not for that support.
Tomorrow we will place a marker at Terezin in Rabbi Jonas’ memory. I look forward to sharing more of her story with you.