In the Footsteps of Rabbi Regina Jonas

The Abraham Geiger College explored the impact of women on religious life over the past 80 years

This winter, the Abraham Geiger College and the School of Jewish Theology at the University of Potsdam marked the 80th anniversary of Rabbi Regina Jonas’ ordination in 1935 with an international conference, “The Role of Women’s Leadership in Faith Communities.” More than 40 presenters from Europe, Israel and the United States explored the impact of women in the rabbinate and the ministry and discussed issues of leadership and authority, women’s religious scholarship and gender (in)equality today.

Among the speakers were pioneering women of all Jewish denominations, including Rav Lila Kagedan, of Yeshivat Maharat, as well as Christian feminist scholars and the first female professor of Islamic Theology in Germany, Katajun Amirpur.

“While the mix of scholars and rabbis coming from different faith traditions had its challenges, it was a bold and important statement of what is called for in these difficult times,”

stated Gail Reimer, founding director of the Jewish Women’s Archive in Boston. With participants from the United States, Israel, England, France, Poland, Sweden, and other countries, the event provided fertile ground to explore the many ways in which women have enriched the landscape of religious life across every spectrum.

We gathered a wonderful group of presenters, and so much rich and provocative conversation took place outside of formal sessions as well as within them. Progressive Judaism was very well represented by Rabbis Jackie Koch Ellenson, Elyse Frishman, Laura Geller and Sandy Sasso as well as by their pioneering colleagues from Europe and Israel, including Rabbis Deborah Kahn-Harris and Margaret Jacobi, Delphine Horvielleur and Kinneret Shiryon. Women of Reform Judaism’s First Vice President Susan C. Bass, of Houston, shared her impressions from the recent biennial in Orlando. The Israeli ambassador to Poland, Anna Azari, was one of the many more lay leaders joining this memorable conference.

The three conference days, November 17‒19, were framed by many highlights. The ceremonial address, “The Presence and Absence of Women in the Intellectual History of the Jewish Community” was delivered by Professor Rachel Elior (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) and tackled an array of issues which were discussed during the conference which was opened by Professor Pamela S. Nadell of American University, Washington D.C. The concluding Regina Jonas Lecture was delivered by the President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Rabbi Denise L. Eger, who spoke about “Women as Agents of Future Change” and challenged us to make Judaism bigger, more accepting and more inviting. Many new connections were made. As Rabbi Eger put it:

“I look forward to seeing you in the near future and to further opportunities to collaborate. I hope there will be some follow up.”

The proceedings of the conference, which was funded by the German Federal Cultural Foundation, will be published in 2016.