Born into a German-Jewish family, Regina Jonas is recognized as the first woman ever ordained as a Rabbi.
Jonas began her career as a teacher, but was not happy. She decided to study at seminary with certain liberal rabbis and educators in Berlin. Eventually she graduated as an “Academic Teacher of Religion” and began a long process to become ordained as a Rabbi.
Not surprisingly, her thesis for graduation addressed the question of whether a woman could be ordained as a Rabbi under Jewish Law. And her conclusions suggested that she in fact could. Unfortunately, few others agreed with her. Even her esteemed mentor Rabbi Leo Baeck refused to ordain her, although his reasons were political rather than religious. Eventually however, her perseverance paid off and she was ordained in 1935.
One of the founders of Reform Judaism, Rabbi Jonas' road was beset with difficulty. Finding a pulpit would have been a challenging task for any woman in those days, but the rise of Hitler made preaching difficult for all Rabbis. She offered her services at various community institutions.
Unfortunately, she was arrested by the Gestapo in 1942 and sent to Thereisenstadt. She worked there for two years, providing religious counseling to calm the many terrified. Eventually, she too was deported to Auschwitz in 1944 and never seen again.
After the war, it would be nearly forty years before Reform movements in the U.S. began to ordain women Rabbis. In Germany, a woman Rabbi was not ordained until 1995.
The only real remnants of Rabbi Jonas' work are found in a hand-written list of lectures that she delivered while interned at Theresienstadt. Her legacy however, lives far beyond those few words.