by Marnie Macauley February 1, 2019


regina-jones-the-first-woman-to-be-ordained-as-a-rabbi-was-killed-in-auschwitz-in-1944In our last issue, we looked at a small sampling of remarkable Jewish women who used their special talents and skill to change the world around them in a young America. Most of us have heard of Barbara Walters, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, playwright Wendy Wasserstein, Molly Goldberg (Gertrude Berg), and of course, Streisand and Midler, but what of Belle Moskowitz, the real power behind a New York governor or Ruth Cohen Frisch, the rebbetzin who tamed her rough and tumble rabbi husband? In this issue we look at Soldiers, Yentls, and Scholars. Here is a tiny sampling.


Jewish women have contributed to the U.S. military since the Civil War, when Phoebe Yates Levy offered her nursing skills and became one of the first women to break into the previously all-male field of nursing. According to the Jewish Chaplains Association, there are only 28 active-duty Jewish chaplains and 57 reservists.

RABBI CHANA TIMONER: Rabbi Chana Timoner, who became the first Jewish full-time army chaplain, came from a military tradition. The New York Times reported that her mother joined the Canadian Army in 1940 to join the fight against the Nazis. Timoner was born in the early 1950s. She married at 18 and then graduated from Southern Connecticut State University, while raising two children who were teenagers when she enrolled in rabbinical school. Timoner was ordained in 1989, then continued at the New York Theological Seminary, studying for her doctorate. Timoner was 39 when she began her army career at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, officiating at all life-cycle events. She also organized donations to agencies and those in need on the base and ran the army’s largest Jewish religious school. She served in Korea, where she was stationed with an aviation attack regiment near the demilitarized zone. It was there when she was diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr virus. There was an empty seat at MIT in the 2003 commencement ceremonies when her son, Samson J. Timoner received his PhD. She died in 1998 at age 46, but the family still felt her loving presence: “We know she’s here in spirit,” they said.


Rashi, the great 12th-century French rabbi, had three daughters who were highly educated, assisted in the publication of their father’s works and it is also believed rendered legal decisions in his absence. In the 16th century, Miriam, a descendent of Rashi, and the mother of Rabbi Solomon Luria, lectured at a seminary from behind an opaque screen.

REGINA JONES: Louise Scodie wrote an article about Regina Jones titled “A Forgotten Pioneer of Faith.” Regina was born in 1902 in Berlin and attended the city’s center for Jewish studies. She qualified as a religion teacher, but she was determined to become a rabbi. She encountered the predictable opposition until Rabbi Max Dienemann in Offenbach ordained her in 1935, thus making the 33-year-old the first female rabbi in history. Jones gave sermons and performed pastoral duties working among Berlin’s Jewish community—a role she continued after she was deported to the Czech Ghetto, Theriesenstadt, in November 1942. She was murdered at age 42 in Auschwitz on Dec. 12, 1944. Though Regina never stopped challenging the rabbinical patriarchy, her place in Judaic history was largely swept aside.

PAULA ACKERMAN: On December 12, 1950, Paula Ackerman became the interim “spiritual leader” of Temple Beth Israel in Meridian, Mississippi, after her husband (the congregation’s rabbi) died.

Although she lacked official ordination, the state of Mississippi permitted her to perform marriages. She was allowed to act as a “rabbi” as result of a ruling in Reform Judaism. She was born Paula Herskovitz and married Rabbi William Ackerman in 1919. As a rebbitzin, she taught in the Hebrew school, worked with the sisterhood, and even took her husband’s place on the pulpit whenever he was absent or ill. After her husband died, 57-year-old Paula was asked to fill in until the synagogue could get another rabbi. Ackerman saw the challenge as opening doors for women to train for congregational leadership. She steered Beth Israel for the next three years. In 1962, when the rabbi of Ackerman’s childhood synagogue in Pensacola, Florida, suddenly quit she agreed to return to hold that congregation together as well.

RUTH COHEN FRISCH: Perhaps one of the most fascinating rebbetzins (and G-d knows, patient) was the beloved Ruth Cohen Frisch, daughter of Galveston’s popular Rabbi Henry Cohen. Oy, did she get her “spirited” husband, radical Rabbi Ephraim Frisch, out of tsouris more than once after he took the pulpit at San Antonio’s Temple Beth-El in 1923. The rabbi was an avid New Dealer and friend of Clarence Darrow and Diego Rivera; sometimes he went a bissel overboard, for example, when he blessed the hogs at the Stock Show on radio. Rabbi Frisch’s views also got him into hot water when he chastised San Antonio’s wealthy for ignoring problems in the Mexican barrio; criticized congregants who fought unionization; and ridiculed legislators who sought to ban evolution from being taught in the schools. His rebbetzin, Ruth, while also progressive, used her wit, warmth, and persuasiveness to smooth her husband’s rough and tumble edges. She held classes for youngsters, steering a number of children into the arts. In 1942, when she died from Hodgkin’s disease, her husband sunk into depression and retired—with the help of his congregation.

“If a turtle stays in one place, he is very safe. But if he wants to move, he has to stick his neck out. You have to take a risk if you believe in something.”—Dr.  Ruth Westheimer

GROUND-BREAKERS! (A small sampling)

DR. RUTH GRUBER (“Mother Ruth”): Reader’s Digest saluted her as “America’s Schindler.” During World War II when much of the world turned its back on the Jews of Eastern Europe, the Brooklyn-born Ruth Gruber fought to make a difference and did. Gruber was born in 1911 and earned her PhD at age 20. In 1944, while she was working for the secretary of the interior, Harold L. Ickes, President Roosevelt sent Gruber on a covert mission to escort 1,000 World War II refugees to America. During the mission, she was hunted by the Nazis as a spy. Afterward, she wrote her book “Haven” about her experiences—which became a television movie in 2000.

Dr. Alex Margulies, who helped develop the CAT-scan and MRI, was among those rescued. The refugees were given sanctuary on an old army base in Oswego, New York. They were considered “guests” to be sent back to their homelands after the war, although Gruber succeeded in her efforts to allow them to remain. As the quotas remained unchanged, the refugees were just subtracted from that year’s quota.

Following the war, Gruber shined global attention on Jewish migration to Palestine and the growth of Israel. The Pulitzer Prize-winner continued to write and advocate for Jews. She became a worldwide symbol of Jewish rescue from oppression.

BELLE MOSKOWITZ:  One of the most interesting politicos was New Yorker Belle Moskowitz, who was born in 1877. She used her natural savvy to move in heavy political arenas. A devout social reformer, Belle used her knowledge of Tammany Hall to coerce legislation to clean up “dancing academies” (read: houses of prostitution). After marrying community leader, Henry Moskowitz, the couple arbitrated strikes in the garment industry. Belle also held high positions on the governor’s Labor Board and the New York Port Authority, but her most famous role was that of left and right hand to New York governor, Al Smith. Smith rarely made an important decision without “Mrs. M’s” advice, as he often noted, she had the greatest brain of anyone he knew.

ROSALYN SUSSMAN YALOW: Rosalyn Sussman Yalow was born in the Bronx on July 19, 1921, to German and American Jews. After graduating from Hunter College, she accepted a teaching fellowship in physics at the University of Illinois. She became the only female in the College of Engineering, and in 1945, she was the second woman to receive a PhD in physics. She met and married Aaron Yalow, a fellow physics student and the son of a rabbi in 1943. After World War II, the Veterans Administration began research into radioactive substances in treatment and disease. In 1950, Rosalyn was named assistant chief of the Bronx V.A. Hospital’s radioisotope service. In 1977, she became the first American woman to receive the sole Nobel Prize in Medicine for development of radioimmunoassay (RIA). This allowed doctors to diagnose conditions such as diabetes, hepatitis and to determine effective dosages of antibiotics.  In Fred A. Bernstein’s “The Jewish Mothers’ Hall of Fame,” Clara Sussman related her pride in her daughter.

“[Rosalyn] wanted me to go [to the Nobel ceremony] in the worst way, but I was 92. I didn’t want to spoil her fun. I was at my doctor’s and he said to everyone, ‘This is the Nobel Prize winner’s mother,’ and they all applauded.”

This series is a small sampling of the thousands who deserve inclusion and the millions of unsung Jewish women who have taken on as much as shoulders can bear and then some. In the end, our truth is visual. I see an image of a very rare, precious tapestry. Through thousands of years, the tapestry reflects our intricacy, complexity and vibrance. We see the patterns of laughter, wisdom, tears, outrage, tzedakah, courage, involvement; the extraordinary contributions of Jewish women to our culture and to humanity. And let us pray our descendants will add to our majestic tapestry in their own unique way. After all, what right does one stitch have to ignore the design?


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