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Women Rabbis

In her opening speech, Daniela Thau described herself as a "rabbi on the margin". This feeling of being marginalized was shared by several participants. Are women rabbis and learned Jewish women nothing but a fringe group? Are their existence and their appearance just tolerated by the male society and nothing more than a concession to political correctness? And will, in the end, the old structures remain unbroken whenever they are at stake?


What I learned from Regina Jonas

On the Presentation of her Ordination Certificate to Leo Baeck College in 1993

Rabbi Sybil Sheridan

One day in October 1993, my life changed. Dr Hermann Simon, director of the Centrum Judaicum Foundation here in Berlin, came to the Leo Baeck College in London and presented a gift: a photograph and the ordination certificate of Rabbi Regina Jonas, ordained in Germany in 1935.

I learnt three things that day.

We gathered, around forty people, in a conference room at the Sternberg Centre where Rabbi Professor Jonathan Magonet the principle of the Leo Baeck College gave a speech. Then the artifacts were presented and passed around the room. When I saw the picture of Rabbi Jonas standing in her formal robes I had the strangest sensation. I saw myself. My parents came to England from Germany as refugees. Had there been no Shoah, my life, my upbringing, my education would have been German. Had there been no Shoah, Rabbi Jonas would probably have still been alive when I was born and in the nearly forty years that separated her ordination and mine, there would undoubtedly have been other women in the Rabbinate. Instead of finding myself a reluctant pioneer, one of only a few, an outsider to mainstream Judaism and to the mainstream Rabbinate - I could have taken my place in what would have by now, become the most natural thing - to have women as Rabbis. And reflect. Had there been no Shoah, and had there been women Rabbis in the Progressive Jewish movements of Europe for the last sixty years - how different would Judaism be today? That hiatus, the changing of everytying jewish that happened because of the Shoah went beyond the loss of life and loss of culture, it threw Judaism back a century - a century from which we are only now emmerging. That was the first lesson.

s a lecturer at the Leo Baeck College and as one of the first women to be ordained there, I had been asked to accept the presentation by Dr. Simon and give a speech of thanks. I worked very hard on that speech because, I sensed that this was indeed a momentous occasion. Dr. Simon said a few words, turned to Rabbi Professor Magonet and gave him the ordination certificate. Rabbi Professor Magonet thanked him and they both sat down. They had forgotten about me. There was one further speech and then the meeting broke up. There was no way I could say anything without it looking completely absurd, but as it was, the whole thing was pretty absurd. Here we were, in an audience primarily made up of women, celebrating the the first woman Rabbi, with speeches and a presentationentirely by men. After the ceremony I confronted Rabbi Magonet who told me he was far too busy to think of it because that evening was also going to be the presentation of the first honorary doctorate by the Leo Baeck College and he had so much to arrange.

The Rabbi Regina Jonas presentation took place in a modern seminar room, we sat simply in a circle in a very informal atmosphere. Half an hour later, the presentation of the doctorate took place in a large elaborate hall. The lecturers of the college walked solemnly in, in full academic dress, to the sounds of a string quartet who played periodically through the evening. Speeches by the gentleman who received the doctorate had been published in a booklet and were given to each person in the packed audience present. It was a grand occasion. What I don’t understand is why the two ceremonies were not combined? Without detracting from the honorary Doctor’ s undoubted merits it does seem to me that the presentation by Dr. Simon was of far greater significance. So what I learned was this. Despite the many ordained women: despite the alleged championing of egalitarian causes by the Leo Baeck College, women had not yet broken through into the mainstream.

Third lesson. After the presentation, Hans Hirschberg, a London resident who had discovered that the ordination certificate of Rabbi Regina Jonas still existed in Berlin gave a very hard hitting speech addressed specifically to the women rabbis present. Why were they not interested? Why had no one bothered to follow up the leads regarding Regina Jonas’ life and death? A stunned audience replied with one voice: ‘We did not know about her’!

Fifty years is no great amount of time How is it possible that a figure so close to us, so significant in Judaism’s modern development, be forgotten? Questions must be asked.

First, what of her contemporaries? Though Rabbi Regina Jonas died in Auschwitz, her teacher Rabbi Dr. Leo Baeck and many other colleagues escaped or survived Nazi oppression and found homes in England, the United States, Australia. Why did they never mention her? Or if they did, why was no note taken? Possibly one reason is that her ordination was not recognised. Her private semicha in Offenbach by Rabbi Max Deineman, himself on the very liberal end of the Reform movement, would invite rejection not only by those opposed to women rabbis, but also those opposed to him and his views. Another is simply circumstances. Why should the survivors talk about her? So many great teachers and leaders were lost in the Shoah. Those making sense of a new life in a new country in a new world order can be forgiven if their former colleagues did not loom largely in their minds.

But there were others, involved in the issues surrounding the ordination of women as rabbis in England and in the United Sates, who must have known about her. Opposing women’s ordination, it looks like these people kept silent - for to mention a precedent would inevitably have meant losing their case.

But these are not the only guilty ones in forgetting Rabbi Regina Jonas. I personally had heard about her. I greeted the information, as did other women who were students at the time with monumental indifference. In the plea today for suitable role models for women in the Rabbinate it seems extraordinary that we showed not the slightest interest in finding out more about ‘that woman in Germany who studied to be a rabbi.'

Nor were we in England alone in forgetting her. Rabbi Sally Priesand the first woman Rabbi in the United States wrote about her in her rabbinic thesis and in her book "Judaism and the New Woman" 4 . Remarking on her discovery of Regina Jonas’ life she admitted that she - Priesand - ‘was not the first woman Rabbi’. I was actually the second woman rabbi, then, although I was the first to be ordained by a theological seminary." Yet, when in 1994 she celebrated twenty years in the Rabbinate, all tributes to her claimed her as the first . Not one reference was made to Rabbi Jonas. In the States, as in England she had been forgotten. How could this be? I can only think that our indifference in the 1970s grew out of an attempt to be like men.6 As we struggled to gain recognition and respect in the Jewish world, we thought that to reclaim the inheritance of another woman - a woman who was not universally recognised as a Rabbi - would only serve to marginalise us and emphasise our differences from our male colleagues.

And so I learnt that one cannot trust history - that what is forgotten may be more significant than what is remembered and I only hope that our recent ‘discovery’ of Rabbi Regina Jonas will indeed be the last.

Sybil Sheridan was born in Lancashire and studied theology at Cambridge University before training for the rabbinate at Leo Baeck College, London. She currently lectures at the Leo Baeck College in Life Cycle, Festivals and Introduction to Bible and is Minister to the Thames Valley Progressive Jewish Community, in Reading Berkshire. She is the author of i.e. "Stories from the Jewish World" (Macdonald, reprinted 1998) and Editor of "Hear our Voice. Women in the British Rabbinate", (SCM 1994), Rabbi Sheridan is married to Rabbi Jonathan Romain and has four children.


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