Saratoga Jewish Community Arts, with a generous grant from the Jewish Federation of Northeastern NY and support by the Golub Corporation, presents Regina, the story of the first female Jewish rabbi in the world, at Temple Sinai in Saratoga Springs on Sunday, January 5.
Most American Jews believe that ordination of women rabbis is a phenomenon arising from the feminist movement of the 1970s. It is therefore astonishing to discover that the first woman rabbi in the world, Regina Jonas, was ordained in 1935 and served German Jewry in Berlin and in the Theresienstadt concentration camp in the shadow of the Holocaust.
Regina was written and directed by Hungarian Jewish filmmaker Diana Groo, who calls her film a “poetic” documentary.” The poetry comes with the archival footage going back to Berlin in the 1900s, combined with music and voices. Since no German archival film could be found of the impoverished Orthodox Jews who fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe for the Berlin slums (Jonas’ family among them), she used footage from archival footage of Orthodox Jews in Warsaw and Krakow. Only one picture survives of Jonas herself and is used effectively superimposed on a deserted Berlin street. Groo has stayed true to the hundreds of documents Jonas managed to have secretly stored for posterity and not uncovered until after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Jonas emerges as a rare and unstoppable woman of faith. Amazingly, her father, a very poor Orthodox Jewish peddler who died when Regina was only 11, insisted on giving both his son and daughter a religious education. From childhood, she told her friends that she wanted to be a rabbi. She ultimately attended the Academy for the Science of Judaism, graduating as an “Academic Teacher of Religion.” Regina wrote a thesis that would have been a requirement for ordination and the thesis was: Can a Woman Be a Rabbi According to Halachic Sources?” Her conclusion, based on biblical, Talmudic, and rabbinical sources, was: Yes….and thus, she should have been ordained. The spiritual leader of German Jewry who was one of her teachers, Leo Baeck, refused, potentially because he felt it would have caused massive intra-Jewish communal problems with the Orthodox rabbinate in Germany.
After being refused by rabbis and professors who knew her keen intelligence, Regina was finally ordained by liberal Rabbi Max Dienemann, head of the Liberal Rabbis’ Association. However, being ordained was one thing; finding a pulpit was another. She worked first as a chaplain in various Jewish social institutions until so many rabbis, either sent to concentration camps or escaping Jewish persecution, left the country, giving her the opportunity to be a rabbi and preach. She was soon ordered by the Nazis into forced labor in a factory, but despite this, continued her rabbinical work. Viktor Frankl, the well-known psychologist, asked Regina for help there. He wanted to build up a crisis intervention service to improve the possibility of surviving. She was to meet the trains at the station and help new arrivals cope with shock and disorientation.
After working tirelessly for two years, Regina was finally deported to Auschwitz and murdered on December 12, 1944, at the age of 42. “Regina is not a Holocaust tale, but a gracefully edited documentary of a woman who emerges as determined, fearless with the true calling of a rabbi,” says Saratoga Jewish Community Arts Coordinator, Phyllis Wang.
Regina will be screened on Sunday, January 5, 2020, 7pm, at Temple Sinai in Saratoga Springs. The film will be followed by a panel discussion and dessert reception. A $5 donation is requested. For information and reservations, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 518-584-8730 option 2; www.saratogajewishculturalfestival.org