Thursday, 13 August 2020

Drawing up a list of
a dozen women who
influenced my values

Street art in the former Jewish Quarter in Málaga … who are the women you most admire or who have shaped your values and your outlook on the world? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Some months ago, Boris Johnson struggled to name any women he regarded a influential in his life or who had influenced his values. When he did provide his list, he names included mythical figures, but surprised many by not including Margaret Thatcher.

As I read of Doreen Lawrence’s plight in the Guardian yesterday, I realised how difficult it is for a woman to have her voice heard when she speaks about justice for the male members of her family. How much more difficult is it for women, and black women in particular, to have their voices heard when they speak up for themselves.

As I drew up a list of the women who have been influential in my life, I decided to not list family members, teachers, or work colleagues. But then how would I define work colleagues?

Should I include women among the saints such as Saint Catherine of Siena, Saint Teresa of Avila or Saint Julian of Norwich?

If I included women in the Gospels, how would I write briefly about the Virgin Mary or adequately about the Samaritan Woman at the Well, the Syro-Phoenician woman in Tyre or Sidon, or the many other women who often remain unnamed in the New Testament?

When I considered women’s ordination, I opted for Regina Jonas who was ordained a rabbi some years before Florence Li Tim Oi was ordained a priest.

And what about women historians, writers, musicians, poets, actors and politicians? The women of Auschwitz and Hiroshima whose names are forgotten in Holocaust and annihilation 75 years ago>

Eventually – in the spirit of my recent ‘virtual tours’ of a dozen places or sites – I decided to shortlist 12 women … although, by the time I read this again, I may well have changed my mind many times over.

Frankyln Rodgers’s portrait of Doreen Lawrence … a commission by Autograph for the exhibition Devotion – A Portrait of Loretta

1, Doreen Lawrence:

Doreen Delceita Lawrence, Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon, is a Jamaican-born British campaigner for human rights and the mother of Stephen Lawrence, a black teenager who was murdered in a racist attack in south-east London in 1993. She is outspoken as an advocate of police reforms and founded the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust.

Doreen Lawrence, a member of the ‘Windrush generation,’ was born Doreen Graham in Jamaica in 1952, and came to live in England at the age of nine.

When their son Stephen was murdered in 1993, Doreen and Neville Lawrence claimed the Metropolitan Police investigation was not being conducted in a professional manner due to incompetence and racism. After years of campaigning, and with widespread support, the MacPherson inquiry was established by the then Home Secretary, Jack Straw, in 1999. The inquiry concluded that the Metropolitan Police was ‘institutionally racist’ and that this was one of the primary causes of their failure to solve the case.

She was made OBE for ‘services to community relations’ in 2003 and a Life Peer in 2013. She sits on the Labour benches in the House of Lords as a working peer. She has been awarded honorary doctorates by the University of Cambridge, the Open University and the University of West London. She was the Chancellor of De Montfort University, Leicester, in 2016-2020.

Barbara Harris … the first woman to be ordained a bishop in the Anglican Communion

2, Barbara Harris:

Barbara Clementine Harris (1930-2020) was the first woman to be ordained a bishop in the Anglican Communion. She was elected suffragan bishop of the Diocese of Massachusetts in the Episcopal Church in 1988, and was consecrated in 1989.

Harris was long active in civil rights issues, taking part in freedom rides and marches in the 1960s, including the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, led by the Revd Dr Martin Luther King, and she spent summer holidays registering black voters in Greenville, Mississippi.

Barbara Harris attended the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia for many years. There she was an acolyte at the service in 1974 when the first 11 women, now known as the ‘Philadelphia Eleven,’ were ordained priests in the Episcopal Church on 29 July 1974, while women’s ordination was still being debated in the Episcopal Church.

Later, Barbara Harris was ordained deacon in 1979 and priest in 1980. She was the priest-in-charge of Saint Augustine of Hippo Church in Norristown, Pennsylvania (1980-1984), a prison chaplain, and as counsel to industrial corporations for public policy issues and social concerns. She became executive director of the Episcopal Church Publishing Company in 1984, and publisher of The Witness magazine. She returned to the Church of the Advocate in 1988 as interim rector.

Her election as suffragan bishop of Massachusetts in 1988 was controversial, in part because she was divorced and had not attended seminary. She was also the first woman to be elected a bishop in the Episcopal Church and in the Anglican Communion.

When she was consecrated on 11 February 1989, the three-hour, televised service in Boston was attended by 8,000 people, 60 bishops participated in the laying on of hands, 1,200 dignitaries and clergy were in the opening procession, and four choirs took part.

She was a suffragan bishop for 13 years until she retired in 2003. She was an assisting bishop in the Diocese of Washington, DC, until 2007. She died in Lincoln, Massachusetts, earlier this year, on 13 March 2020, at the age of 89.

Vera Brittain … her ‘Testament of Youth’ has inspired successive generations of pacifists

3, Vera Brittain

Vera Mary Brittain (1893-1970) was an English pacifist, feminist, socialist, writer and nurse. Her best-selling memoir Testament of Youth (1933) recounted her experiences during World War I and the beginning of her journey towards pacifism.

Her literary contemporaries at Somerville College, Oxford, included: Dorothy L Sayers, Hilda Reid, Margaret Kennedy and Sylvia Thompson.

Three years after her Testament of Youth was published, she was invited to address a peace rally in Dorchester in 1936, and shared a platform with Dick Sheppard, George Lansbury, Laurence Housman and Donald Soper. Afterwards, Sheppard invited her to join the Peace Pledge Union. She also joined the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship. Her pacifism came to the fore during World War II, when she began the series of Letters to Peacelovers.

From the 1930s on, she was a regular contributor to Peace News. She was a member of the editorial board and in the 1950s and 1960s wrote articles condemning apartheid and colonialism and calling for nuclear disarmament.

She married the political scientist George Catlin (1896-1979) in 1925. Their son was the artist and writer John Brittain-Catlin (1927-1987); their daughter is the former Labour minister now Liberal Democrat peer, Shirley Williams, who was born in 1930 and became one of the ‘Gang of Four’ Labour rebels who founded the SDP in 1981.

Vera Brittain died on 29 March 1970.

The Scroll of Ruth in a synagogue in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

4, Ruth:

Among Biblical figures, Ruth and Esther alone give their names to books in the Bible. Ruth is one of the five women mentioned in the genealogy of Jesus in Saint Matthew’s Gospel, along with Tamar, Rahab, the ‘wife of Uriah’ (Bathsheba), and the Virgin Mary.

Ruth (רוּת‎) is unique, for she is not an Israelite but a Moabite. Ruth challenges matrilineal concepts of inherited Jewish identity, yet she is the ancestor of David and of Jesus.

She marries an Israelite, but both her husband and her father-in-law die, and she helps her mother-in-law, Naomi, find protection. The two women travel to Bethlehem together, where Ruth wins the love of Boaz of Judah through her kindness.

Boaz blesses Ruth for her extraordinary kindness both to Naomi of Judah and to the Judaean people: [Boaz] said, ‘May you be blessed by the Lord, my daughter; this last instance of your loyalty is better than the first; you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich’ (Ruth 3: 10).

Ruth is a model of loving-kindness (hesed): she acts in ways that promote the well-being of others. In Ruth 1: 8-18, she demonstrates hesed by not going back to Moab but accompanying her mother-in-law to a foreign land. This is described in the Commentary of Rashi (ca 1040-1105 CE) as the first act of kindness: ‘that you did with your mother-in-law.’

She chooses to glean, despite the danger she faces in the field (Ruth 2: 15) and the lower social status of the job. Finally, Ruth agrees with Naomi’s plan to marry Boaz, even though she is free of family obligations, once again showing loyalty and obedience (Ruth 3: 10).

In Jewish tradition, Ruth’s kindness is seen as in rare contradistinction to the peoples of Moab and Amon, who were noted in the Torah for their distinct lack of kindness: ‘Because they [the peoples of Amon and Moab] did not meet you with food and water on your journey out of Egypt, and because they [the people of Moab] hired against you Balaam son of Beor, from Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you ... You shall never promote their welfare or their prosperity as long as you live’ (see Deuteronomy 23: 4-6).

Leah Tutu with her husband, Archbishop Desmond Tutu

5, Leah Tutu:

Nomalizo Leah Tutu is a South African activist who has her own claims to leadership and is also a strong voice alongside her husband, Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Nomalizo Leah Tutu was born Nomalizo Leah Shenxane in 1933 in Krugersdorp. She married Desmond Tutu on 2 July 1955. They have four children – Trevor Thamsanqa, Theresa Thandeka, Naomi Nontombi and Mpho Andrea – who went to school in Waterford in Swaziland, and nine grandchildren.

Leah Tutu is a teacher and a nurse. From 1970 to 1972, she worked at the University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland. She co-founded the South African Domestic Workers’ Association, and was the director of the Domestic Workers’ and Employers’ Project of the South African Institute of Race Relations (1976-1984). She co-founded the Desmond Tutu Peace Centre in 1988. She lectures to many churches and women’s groups.

The National Louis University awarded honorary doctorates to Leah and Desmond Tutu in 2000, and in 2009 they were awarded the Mattie JT Stepanek Peacemaker Award by the We Are Family Foundation. They renewed their marriage vows in Orlando, Soweto, in 2015.

Benazir Bhutto (1953-2007) … Prime Minister of Pakistan in 1988-1990 and 1993-1996

6, Benazir Bhutto:

Benazir Bhutto was the Prime Minister of Pakistan from 1988 to 1990 and again from 1993 to 1996. She was the first woman to head a democratic government in a Muslim majority nation.

She was a student at Oxford when I was a regular visitor there in the 1970s. Despite her fast-paced lifestyle, she shared her father’s radical outlook and values, and took a strong stand against the Vietnam War.

In the 1970s, I was friendly with Brenda and Said Yasin, and I still recall how disturbed he was by the arrest of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1977 and his subsequent judicial murder, as Benazir described it, in 1979. Later that year, I visited Pakistan twice, staying first in Karachi, in Bhutto heartland, and returning later to stay in Islamabad during Ramadan.

Benazir Bhutto took a brave decision to return to Pakistan in October 2007. Her political performance was not always as graceful as she was, and her husband was certainly not beyond reproach. But her return to Pakistan was a necessary step in galvanising the movement for the restoration of democracy.

The Mushareef regime was kept in power by the same people who justified the invasion of Iraq with the excuse of toppling Saddam Hussein – and that led directly to the death of 85,000 civilians. Not surprisingly, the Mushareef regime tried to shift the blame for her death in 2007, whether it was to al-Qaeda at one extreme, or – in a more absurd manner – to Benazir herself, because she was standing up in her car.

But, as her son quoted her, ‘Democracy is the best revenge.’

Sheba Sultan, from the Church of Pakistan, spoke at the USPG conference in High Leigh in 2015 of the varied lives of women in Pakistan, from tribal people with few resources and many restrictions, to the elite women who have lives of luxury but find cultural values also stop them from living life to the full.

She reminded us of Benazir Bhutto, who had said women in Pakistan cannot achieve anything without tackling bigotry and intolerance.

Sam Harper, Archbishop Alan Harper, President McAleese and Dr Martin McAleese at the General Synod in Galway in 2008

7, Mary McAleese:

Mary Patricia McAleese was the President of Ireland in 1997-2011, succeeding Mary Robinson. But she is also an award-winning academic and author with a doctoral degree in canon law.

She graduated in law from Queen’s University Belfast. She has been Professor of Criminal Law, Criminology and Penology at Trinity College Dublin, director of the Institute of Professional Legal Studies at QUB. In 1994, and pro-vice-chancellor of Queen’s University. She worked as a barrister and as a journalist with RTÉ, and is an honorary fellow of Saint Edmund’s College, Cambridge.

As President, Mary McAleese gave priority to justice, social equality, social inclusion, anti-sectarianism and reconciliation. Her theme of ‘Building Bridges’ was expressed in her attempts to reach out to the Unionist community in Northern Ireland. I was present when she received Holy Communion in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, which drew criticism from some members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy.

She welcomed to Áras an Uachtaráin a group of Christian and Muslim leaders from Egypt I had brought to Ireland in 2006, and in 2008 she was the first Head of State ever to address the General Synod of the Church of Ireland, when she received a rapturous welcome and a standing ovation in Galway.

She praised the Churches for their role in leading the people of the island of Ireland to mutual respect. She spoke of how we have been released from history’s vanities, how the context has changed, and of the Gospel challenge to love one another, to forgive one another and to be charitable to one another.

She praised the role of the Churches in working for peace and building cross-border relationships, working as problem-solvers and reminding us that we are part of a bigger and deeper global family. The things that once paralysed us are now behind us. Now we had to be a light to a world brought down by violence, poverty and disease. ‘Love does triumph,’ she declared.

Ireland is neither Catholic nor Protestant, she reminded us. It is a homeland for all, with a multi-faith heritage in the making.

Professor Mary McAleese was the preacher in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, in 2016 at the ordination as priest of two of my students, the Revd Kevin Conroy and the Revd Nigel Pierrpoint.

Mary McAleese remains a practising Roman Catholic, yet is not afraid to be outspoken about her views on gay rights and the ordination of women as priests.

Mary Lawlor … defending human rights for almost half a century

8, Mary Lawlor:

Mary Lawlor took up the mandate of UN Special Rapport on the situation of human rights defender earlier this year, following a decision by the UN Human Rights Council.

For decades, Mary Lawlor has worked in human rights, defending the rights of human rights defenders and founding and/or growing successful, effective NGOs. I first got to know her when she was chair of the Irish Section of Amnesty International in the mid-1980s.

Mary Lawlor has a BA in Psychology and Philosophy and postgraduate degrees in Montessori Teaching and Personnel Management. She was the Director of the Irish Section of Amnesty International in 1988-2000, after being a board member from 1975 and chair in 1983-1987.

She founded Front Line Defenders, the International Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, in 2001 to work for human rights defenders who are at risk, provide them with ‘round-the-clock’ practical support so they can continue their work to build civil and just societies.

As Executive Director in 2001-2016, she had a key role in the development of Front Line Defenders, which was awarded the King Baudouin International Development Prize in 2007 and the UN Human Rights Prize in 2018.

She is currently an Adjunct Professor in the Centre for Social Innovation, School of Business, Trinity College Dublin, where she takes a lead on Business and Human Rights. She is a member of the Advisory Board of the School of Business in TCD and a member the Advisory Board of the UCD Centre for Ethics in Public Life, School of Philosophy, UCD, and the Norwegian Human Rights Fund.

Her awards and recognitions include the Irish Life WMB Social Entrepreneur of the Year Award (2008), the Irish Tatler Woman of the Year Special Recognition Award (2011), the French insignia of Chevalier de l’Ordre National de la Légion d’Honneur (2014), an honorary degree of Doctor in Laws from TCD (2014), the Franco-German Award for Human Rights and the Rule of Law (2016) an an honorary Doctorate in Law from UCD (2017).

Adi Roiche … has worked for most of her life with children suffering from the Chernobyl disaster

9, Adi Roche:

Adi Patricia Roche is an anti-nuclear activist, campaigner for peace, humanitarian aid and education. She founded and is CEO of Chernobyl Children's Project International, and has worked for most of her life with children suffering in the wake of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

Adi Roche was born in Clonmel, Co Tipperary in 1955, and first worked with Aer Lingus. We first met in the late 1970s at the sit-ins and protests at the proposed site for a nuclear power plant at Carnsore Point, Co Wexford. She started worked full-time as a volunteer for the Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in 1984. She developed a Peace Education Programme that she brought to over 50 schools. She was the first Irish woman elected to the board of directors of the International Peace Bureau in Geneva in 1990.

Adi founded Chernobyl Children International in 1991 to help children and families in Belarus, Western Russia and Ukraine who continue to suffer because of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986. Under her leadership, Chernobyl Children International has delivered over €105 million to the areas most affected and has enabled over 25,500 children to visit Ireland for medical treatment and recuperation.

On the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, she made a landmark address to the UN General Assembly in New York in 2016. In an unprecedented move, the Belarusian UN delegates provided her with their speaking time at the General Assembly.

Maria Farantouri … the voice of Greek conscience

10, Maria Farantouri:

I have built up a modest collection of the work of the Greek singer and political and cultural activist Maria Farantouri over many years, buying her CDs in Crete and Athens. Her influence on Greek political and social activism is immeasurable, perhaps comparable only with the composer Mikis Theodorakis, and they have collaborated closely throughout their careers.

Her voice is a deep contralto with about an octave and a half range, and is immediately recognisable to every Greek, stirring deep emotional reactions. The international press has called her a people’s Callas (The Daily Telegraph), and the Joan Baez of the Mediterranean (Le Monde). The Guardian said her voice was a gift from the gods of Olympus.

She has worked with prominent Greek composers such as Mikis Theodorakis and Manos Hatzidakis with the Australian guitarist John Williams, she has recorded in Greek, English, Italian and Spanish, and she has recorded poems and works by international writers from Brendan Behan to Federico García Lorca.

In their collaboration, Maria Farantouri and Mikis Theodorakis have radically transformed modern Greek music and have made Greek people familiar with the poetry of the Nobel Prize-winning poets George Seferis and Odysseas Elytis and many other Greek poets.

The Irish journalist Damian Mac Con Uladh, who lives in Greece, and the Irish diplomat Patrick Sammon have painstakingly researched the story of her recording of Το Γελαστό παιδί Mikis Theodorakis’s interpretation of Brendan Behan’s poem ‘The Laughing Boy,’ with Greek lyrics translated by Vasilis Rotas for a Greek setting of the play The Hostage.

The song featured in Costas Garvas’s movie Z (1969) and became one of the emotional anthems in the resistance to the colonels’ junta in 1967-1974.

Maria Farantouri was born in Athens on 28 November 1947, when Greece was recovering in the aftermath of World War II. Her creative career began in her teens when she was soon recognised for her rich contralto voice and became a soloist. She was 15 in 1963 when Mikis Theodorakis heard her singing his song Grief. He was deeply impressed, met her backstage, and asked: ‘Do you know that you were born to sing my songs?’

‘I know,’ was her immediate response.

Maria became a member of Theodorakis’s ensemble, which included Grigoris Bithikotsis, Dora Yiannakopoulou and Soula Birbili. Soon, she was singing at important political and social events. Theodorakis’s new work The Hostage was performed at every peace demonstration, and with her militant young voice, Maria made his Greek version of Brendan Behan’s song The Laughing Boy known throughout Greece.

Around this time, Theodorakis composed the first work he had written for her voice, The Ballad of Mauthausen, a cantata based on the writings of the Greek playwright Iakovos Kambanellis (1922-2011). This cantata would become identified with her voice throughout the world. The best-known song of all, Άσμα Ασμάτων (Asma Asmaton, ‘Song of Songs’), which opens hauntingly with the words:

Τι ωραία που είν’ η αγάπη μου
με το καθημερνό της φόρεμα
κι ένα χτενάκι στα μαλλιά.
Κανείς δεν ήξερε πως είναι τόσο ωραία.


‘My love, how beautiful she is in her everyday dress.’

Theodorakis wrote Farandouri’s Cycle for her, and she remains the only artist to whom he has dedicated a song cycle, and she toured Greece and abroad as a member of his ensemble.

A military coup brought the colonels’ junta to power in Greece in 1967. The new regime banned Theodorakis’s music; he went underground and was on the run for four months. She was just 20 when she went into exile in Paris. There she started singing in concerts and became a symbol of resistance and hope. She worked throughout Europe, recording protest songs with Theodorakis, who wrote the score for Pablo Neruda’s Canto General.

While Theodorakis was in internal exile in the remote mountain village of Zatouna, he secretly supplied her with tapes of his new songs recorded crudely on a small tape-recorder. These included State of Siege, his setting of a poem by a woman prisoner, broadcast from London’s Roundhouse. In this concert, Maria was supported by Greek artists such as Minos Volanakis, and the cast of the musical Hair.

She met Tilemachos Chytiris, a poet from Corfu and a student of philosophy at Florence, while she was giving a concert for Greek students. Theodorakis too went into exile in Paris in 1970. When his health began to recover, he began his tours of Europe, North and South America, and the Middle East, with Maria playing a leading part in his concerts.

Her packed concerts encouraged and emboldened Greeks in exile, and recordings were smuggled back into Greece. By the early 1970s, she was living in exile in London. In Paris, she made such an impression on François Mitterrand that in The Bee and the Architect he compared her to Greece itself: ‘For me, Greece is Maria Farantouri. This is how I imagined the goddess Hera to be, strong, pure, and vigilant. I have never encountered any other artist able to give such a strong sense of the divine.’

When the Greek junta sent tanks in against protesting students in Athens on 17 November 1973, causing the deaths of at least 24 people over a number of days, Maria Farandouri added stanzas to Το Γελαστό παιδί, deliberately linking the song with that event.

After the dictatorship fell in 1974, Mikis Theodorakis and Maria Farandouri returned to Greece. There they gave moving concerts to audiences who had experienced seven years of fear and repression, and at a concert by Theodorakis in Athens in October to mark the fall of the junta and the restoration of democracy she sang that new version of that song.

As Damian Mac Con Uladh points out, while Brendan Behan's original ‘laughing boy,’ Michael Collins, was killed ‘on an August morning,’ Maria’s extra lines referred to ‘November 17,’ and instead of saying the laughing boy was killed by ‘our own,’ the Polytechnic version refers to the killers as ‘fascists.’

About 125,000 people attended her performance with Petros Pandis of Theodorakis’s Canto General in the Karaiskakis Stadium. Her Songs of Protest from all over the World in Greek became a gold record.
With her longing for peace and friendship between Greece and Turkey, Maria took the daring step of collaborating with the Turkish composer Zülfü Livaneli. They staged concerts in Athens and for Turkish audiences.

Her most important collaboration with the Theodorakis was The Ballad of Mauthausen in the Herod Atticus Theatre in Athens with the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Zubin Mehta.

The Greek Prime Minister and Pasok leader Andreas Papandreou invited Maria to stand as a Pasok candidate in 1989. From the opposition benches, she worked on cultural issues with Melina Mercouri and Stavros Benos. She remained a member of the Greek parliament until 1993, and her husband Tilemachos Chytiris is a Pasok politician too.

Maria returned to singing and recording in 1990. She has continued to work with Theodorakis to this day, and also works with a new generation of young Greek composers. In 2001, she filled the Theatre of Herod Atticus in Athens with a concert of ‘A Century of Greek Song.’

In recent years, she has given a new dimension to the traditional Greek rembetiko and to Byzantine music. In a recent CD Το Μυστικό (The Secret or Mosaic), she has worked with Ross Daly, the Irish composer who lives in Archanes in Crete.

Simone Weil (1909-1943) … ‘a moral genius in the orbit of ethics, a genius of immense revolutionary range’

11, Simone Weil:

Simone Weil (1909-1943) was a French philosopher, Christian mystic and social activist, who was born in Paris into an agnostic Jewish family. She wrote extensively with both insight and breadth about the political movements she was involved in and later about spiritual mysticism. Her biographer Gabriella Fiori says she was ‘a moral genius in the orbit of ethics, a genius of immense revolutionary range.’

Despite her youthful pacifism, she fought in the Spanish Civil War. After clumsily burning herself over a cooking fire, she left Spain to recuperate in Assisi, and there, in the church where Saint Francis of Assisi had prayed, she had an experience of religious ecstasy in 1937, leading her to pray for the first time in her life.

She had another, more powerful revelation a year later, and, from 1938 on, her writings became more mystical and spiritual. She thought of becoming a Roman Catholic, but declined to be baptised until the very end of her life – a decision she explained in her book Waiting for God.

During World War II, she joined the French Resistance. After a lifetime of illness and frailty, she died in August 1943 in Ashford, Kent, at the age of 34. The 1952 book Gravity and Grace consists of passages selected from her notebooks.

Weil does not regard the world as a debased creation, but as a direct expression of God’s love – although she also recognises it as a place of evil, affliction, and sees the brutal mixture of chance and necessity. This juxtaposition leads her to produce an unusual form of Christian theodicy.

Weil also writes on why she believes spirituality is necessary for dealing with social and political problems, and says the soul needs food just as the body needs food.

Regina Jonas (1902-1944) … the first woman ordained a rabbi, she was murdered in Auschwitz

12, Regina Jonas:

In Berlin two years ago, I was stayed around the corner from the New Synagogue on Oranienburger Strasse, which survived the attack on Kristallnacht, and which remains one of the most eye-catching buildings in Berlin today. The congregation in the New Synagogue today is Berlin’s only Masorti synagogue, and Gesa Ederberg became the first female pulpit rabbi in Berlin when she became the rabbi of the New Synagogue in 2007.

Gesa Ederberg is the first woman rabbi to serve in Berlin since the Holocaust and has helped to reinvigorate the German community that once represented the cutting edge of liberal Judaism. But she is not the first woman rabbi in Germany.

Indeed, it was in the New Synagogue on Oranienburger Strasse that I heard the story of Regina Jonas, the first woman rabbi who was ordained in Germany in 1935. She served the Jewish community of Berlin and continued to help guide the Jewish community until her death in Auschwitz in 1944.

Regina Jonas (1902-1944) was born in Berlin and was orphaned at a very young age. She trained as a teacher but later enrolled at the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies and took seminary courses for liberal rabbis and educators.

She graduated as an ‘Academic Teacher of Religion’ and completed the thesis that was required for ordination. Her theses asked, ‘Can a Woman Be a Rabbi According to Halachic Sources?’ Her conclusion, based on Biblical, Talmudic, and rabbinical sources, was that she should be ordained.

At first, she was refused ordination because she was a woman. Rabbi Leo Baeck, the spiritual leader of German Jewry who had taught her at the seminary, also refused because the ordination of a woman as a rabbi would have caused serious divisions within the Jewish community in Germany. However, on 27 December 1935, Regina Jonas was ordained by Rabbi Max Dienemann, head of the Liberal Rabbis' Association, in Offenbach am Main.

Regina Jonas found work as a chaplain in Jewish social institutions while she tried to find a pulpit. Despite Nazi persecution, she continued her rabbinical work as well as teaching and holding services. She was arrested by the Gestapo on 5 November 1942, and was deported to Theresienstadt concentration camp. There she continued her work as a rabbi, and Viktor Frankl, the psychotherapist, invited her to help in building a crisis intervention service to help prevent suicide attempts. She met the trains at the station and helped people cope with shock and disorientation.

For two years, she worked tirelessly in Theresienstadt until she was deported with other prisoners to Auschwitz in mid-October 1944, and she was murdered soon after at the age of 42. The actual date of her murder is not known, but it may have been 12 October 1944, a date observed by many Jewish communities and marked by many Jewish women’s groups.

Regina Jonas was largely forgotten until her work was rediscovered in 1991 by Dr Katharina von Kellenbach, a German-born researcher and lecturer in the department of philosophy and theology at Saint Mary’s College of Maryland.

She travelled to Germany to research a paper on the attitude of the German religious establishment, both Protestant and Jewish, to women seeking ordination in 1930s. In a former East German archive in East Berlin, she found an envelope containing the only two existing photographs of Regina Jonas, along with her rabbinical diploma, teaching certificate, seminary dissertation and other personal documents.

A large portrait of Regina Jonas was part of an exhibition in Berlin in 2013 to mark the 80th anniversary of the Nazis’ rise to power in 1933 and the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht in 1938.

Regina Jonas … a portrait by Jared Wright of the first woman rabbi who was ordained in Germany

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