Since its inception in 1996, the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of American Jewish University in Bel Air has had students from various countries, but until recently, never from Germany.
This year, however, the school has two German graduates, both women. Esther Jonas-Maertin completed her final year of the five-year program and was ordained, along with five others, on May 22. Nitzan Stein Kokin, a visiting student from Ziegler’s sister school in Berlin, Zacharias Frankel College, is completing her last year of studies and will be ordained in Berlin on June 18. Hers will be the first ordination of a Conservative rabbi in Germany since before World War II.
Though the women’s journeys to this point were different, they have one thing in common — besides their 42 years of age: neither was raised Jewish. Jonas-Maertin grew up in Leipzig when the Berlin Wall was still standing and practicing any religion in communist East Germany was strongly discouraged. Her father is Jewish, her mother nonreligious. Stein Kokin grew up in a Protestant household in a small town in southwest Germany.
Despite East Germany’s aversion to religion, Jonas-Maertin became interested in Judaism at a young age, reading every book about it she could find. She recalled writing a paper as a teenager on the Jewish history of Leipzig. But her deep spiritual connection with Judaism came later. Specifically, she points to an exchange she had at 22 with her grandmother, a concentration camp survivor, at her grandfather’s grave on his yahrzeit. Although her grandfather also was a survivor, he died before she was born.
Jonas-Maertin took a stone from her pocket and placed it on the grave. She said this small act surprised her grandmother, who was unaware she was familiar with Jewish traditions.
“I had the feeling she recognized me for the first time,“ she said. “My gesture opened a door to a world I didn’t even know. Then [her grandmother] started to recite the Kaddish. I had no idea that my family was religious.”
That same month, an elderly Jewish man visiting his native Leipzig suggested she become a rabbi, given the depth of her feelings for the Jewish people. At the time, the idea seemed farfetched. After all, not only was Jonas-Maertin not a member of a congregation, she had never seen a rabbi, let alone a female rabbi.
Still, something had been kindled. She began lecturing on Jewish history to school groups and Christian congregations. She also switched universities to pursue a master’s degree in Jewish studies and comparative religion. Ten years ago, she converted to Judaism. “I just confirmed something that was already there,” she said.
She began her rabbinical studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem. “I found that some of the liturgical things weren’t resonating with me,” she said. She was so impressed by the accessibility and intelligence of the students she met from Ziegler — nearly all rabbinical programs require their students to do a year in Israel, so Jonas-Maertin was in a good position to meet students from various programs — she decided to continue her studies in Los Angeles at AJU.
Stein Kokin’s introduction to Judaism came from a high school religion teacher, a Protestant minister who, she said, was “very active in Jewish-Christian dialogue.”
In lieu of a traditional high school graduation gift, she asked her parents for a trip to Israel. She traveled with a youth group and was so intrigued that she decided to spend a gap year there, volunteering at an assisted living facility for disabled young adults. It was a good opportunity, she figured, to see if social work was a suitable fit for her. The other career she had seriously considered was ministry. She decided to study theology and determined that if she wanted to really understand Christianity, she needed to learn everything she could about Judaism as well.
During her year in Israel, she befriended a group of “deeply religious women.” She studied the Talmud and attended beth midrash. “Judaism became so much more personal,” she said. She converted in 1999 and made aliyah. Shortly thereafter, she met the man who would become her husband, an L.A. native who was a graduate student spending a year at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
In lieu of a traditional high school graduation gift, Stein Kokin asked her parents for a trip to Israel.
In 2010, her husband got a teaching job in Germany. It was around this same time that the Zacharias Frankel College opened at Potsdam University. There was already a Reform rabbinical school at the university, but this new program would be Europe’s first and only Conservative rabbinical school.
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, the dean of both Ziegler and Zacharias Frankel, will preside at Stein Kokin’s ordination. “I am going to wrap a prayer shawl around Nitzan’s shoulders,” he said.
While every ordination is an occasion for celebration, Artson said this one is particularly meaningful. “In returning liberal Judaism to Germany, I am restoring a lost object to its original location,” he said, referring to Conservative and Reform Judaism. “If I can ordain a German rabbi in Berlin, then I am showing that Hitler lost and we survived and thrive.”
Even though their personal situations are different — Jonas-Maertin is single; Stein Kokin and her husband have two children — both women said that having a fellow German in the program this past year has been a huge positive.
“It’s very tough to come in here and realize you are Jewish, so there is a certain amount of similarities [between German and American Jews],” Jonas-Maertin said. “But the culture is very different. That has become my struggle. We talk a lot about this.”
It’s also clear the two have immense respect for each other. “I think [Jonas-Maertin] is in many ways a real pioneer coming here all by herself and going through the program,” Stein Kokin said.
As for their future plans, Jonas-Maertin and Stein Kokin are applying for a variety of jobs. Jonas-Maertin would love to work in Germany some day, but with only two Conservative synagogues in the country, job opportunities are extremely limited. Stein Kokin is focusing her efforts in Los Angeles.
Of course, Stein Kokin still has her ordination next month. She said she doesn’t feel added pressure, given the historic significance of the occasion. She feels lucky.
“I wrote my final thesis for rabbinic school on the first woman rabbi ever ordained, Regina Jonas, who was ordained in 1935 in Berlin,” Stein Kokin said. “She fought for being able to be ordained. She was very observant, very religious, halachah, kept Shabbat. She also believed in the full equality of men and women.
“That’s what I also believe. She is one of my role models. She was 42 when she perished in Auschwitz. I will be 42 when I enter the rabbinate. To pick up at her footsteps and receive my ordination in Germany … it’s not a weight. It’s a present I was presented with by life or circumstances or God or father, whatever you’re going to call it.”