After 30 years in the rabbinate, I tend to avoid focusing on the courage it took to pursue rabbinic education and launch a career in the congregational rabbinate. Besides, calling attention to myself in that way would be immodest.

But a #MeToo conversation with colleagues in Rabbis Without Borders, and a recent reconnection with old friends from the small group of past presidents of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, has reminded me what it has taken to be a rabbi and a woman. This comes by way of a conversation with female colleagues about legacy — how is the memory and history of the first generation of women rabbis to be preserved and how will the lessons we learned be conveyed?

In 1987, shortly after I was ordained at RRC, I moved to South Bend, Indiana for my first full time congregational job. I met most of the small Jewish community in the short time I was there; many came to our innovative programs though they were loyal members of the Conservative or Reform congregations in town. It was a fun time.

One of those guests brought me a precious gift — a rare photo from 1939. The man who gave it to me had escaped from Germany just in time, in 1939. Before he left Berlin, he took a picture of a very special woman named Regina Jonas, who had been ordained as a rabbi by German Reform rabbis in Berlin. I had never heard of Rabbi Jonas in my rabbinic training — and most people didn’t know her story. We had talked about our hero, Rabbi Sally Priesand, as the first woman rabbi. But Sally was ordained in 1972, and Rabbi Jonas was ordained in the mid-1930’s. She tragically died in Auschwitz, after helping to care for fellow Jews during the darkest hour of the Holocaust.

Not long after that, Rabbi Jonas’ story became publicized with the find of her papers in Berlin. Included in that was one formal photo of her. I owned the other photo — and I had tried to share it with the American Jewish Archives. But I did not receive a response to my letter of inquiry to them. Maybe the letter was somehow lost? I will never know.

When I received the photo, I had a negative and a copy made, and framed the copy for my office, where it has been over the years. As I read about burgeoning research about Rabbi Jonas by colleagues in recent years, I longed to reach out to share this treasure. But, mea culpa, life got in the way and I didn’t get to it. I imagined that by the time I would retire I’d make sure the photo would be saved by the appropriate museum or archive.

Today, talking with my old friend Rabbi Sandy Sasso in a long overdue conversation to catch-up, I learned that Sandy had taken a great interest in Rabbi Jonas and had been writing a book about her. So I told Sandy about the photo in my possession. She was amazed and excited, and this gave me the motivation to deal with the need to share this treasure with the world.

This time the American Jewish Archives enthusiastically responded right away, as did the director of the Jewish Women’s Archives. The photo will find its permanent home with them.

But I admit to having a moment’s pause — that photo has been in my hands for over 30 years. It was a precious gift, but even more — a part of my identity. I hesitated to arrange to give it away, even as I knew that I would eventually pass it along. I had a moment of a loss of nerve.

But today I remembered the courage it took for Sandy (RRC ’74) — the second American woman ordained as a rabbi — to establish herself. And I remembered the courage it took for me to do that thirteen years later, and the work that Sandy and I did together in those early years. I was inspired by the courage it took for Regina Jonas to pursue her rabbinic studies against the tide of rejection by the German Reform establishment, and ultimately the incredible courage she demonstrated caring for our people during the horrific time of the Holocaust.

Of course I can muster the small measure of courage it will take for me to release this precious photo so that it can be properly saved and shared. This will be a life-moment celebration of the accomplishments, power and inspiration of women who lead spiritual communities.

May Frau Rabbi Regina Jonas’s memory be an enduring blessing.

(I’ll post the photo soon, but first need to share with the archivists.)

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