5 days ago, I read about two amazing women, Alina Treiger and Regina Jonas, whose stories will surely be the subject of at least a book or a film, if not both. Alina Treiger was recently ordained as Germany’s second female rabbi. She follows in footsteps of Regina Jonas who was ordained as Germany’s first female rabbi in Berlin before the Second World War.
Jonas was born in 1902. She first chose teaching as her career, but enrolled at the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies in Berlin, where her thesis was on the subject of whether Jewish religious law prohibited women from becoming rabbis. Her conclusion was that it did not.
Ironically, Germany was the birthplace of liberal Judaism, but it took Jonas five years to find a rabbi who would ordain her. Her victory was bittersweet, though, as she could not find a community who would embrace her and let her preach, so she was forced to continue teaching.
Rejected by her own, she was shoved into forced labour by the Nazis before being arrested and sent to the Theresienstadt ghetto camp in 1942. There she met psychologist Victor Frankl, and worked with him counseling prisoners until she was sent to Auschwitz in 1944. She died in the gas chambers at the age of 42, a courageous woman way ahead of her time who remained largely forgotten until Alina Treiger came on the scene.
Treiger was born in the Ukraine in 1979 to a father who was forced to do factory work and was prohibited by the communist authorities from studying because he was a Jew. Treiger grew up passionate about her religion and at the end of the cold war she founded a Jewish youth club.
But she was stifled by her orthodox community, and at age 22 she chose to return to the country where her predecessor had experienced such gruesome challenges, first being rejected by her own community and then being viciously and senselessly destroyed by the Nazis.
Treiger made her way to Germany, even though she didn’t speak the language, intent on finding religious freedom. She arrived with nothing, but was embraced by a Jewish community, and began studying to become a rabbi. Life for Jewish people has changed considerably since the war. After 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down, 200,000 Russian Jews immigrated to Germany. According to the rector of Germany’s seminary for training rabbis, Rabbi Walter Hommulka, they have been treated well.
Like her predecessor, Alina Treiger’s 5-year journey hasn’t been easy, as there is still a lot of resistance to female rabbis – both from male rabbis and people in general. But she has the same rights and responsibilities as male rabbis, and has found a liberal community of about 300 (mostly Russian) people in western Germany which is willing to embrace her as their rabbi.
Treiger’s victory has focused attention also on Regina Jonas, who is now taking her rightful place in history. It’s one giant step for Jewish women, and that Treiger has overcome such powerful resistance in such a traditionally male-dominated community is a giant step for women in general. I’m in awe of her courage and willingness to face and do battle with that resistance as well as confronting a painful history that must still be so alive in many ways, so that she could pursue her dream.