First woman Holocaust survivor to be ordained
Fifty-five years after she was liberated from the Theresienstadtcq concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, Helga Newmark became the first female Holocaust survivor ordained a rabbi.
At 67, she was hired as a part-time assistant rabbi at Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes. She inspired many there and at River Edge's Temple Shalom, where she was a longtime member and had previously taught religious school.
"This was a woman of amazing perseverance," said Rabbi Neal I. Borovitz of the River Edge congregation, now Temple Avodat Shalom. "She struggled with the human and the divine and was a true daughter of Israel."
Rabbi Newmark, of Hackensack and previously Ridgefield Park, died March 6. She was 79.
She suffered from coronary heart failure, said a daughter, Carol Cohen.
Helga Newmark grew up on the same Amsterdam block as Anne Frank and spent three years in Nazi camps. "I survived because I tried not to be noticed," she told The New York Times in 1994.
She said she never gave God a thought during her wartime ordeal.
"I think it helped a lot of people in camp to have faith and find a meaning," she said in the interview. "But I didn't come from that faith."
After their liberation, Helga cqand her mother returned to Amsterdam, then went to New York. At 17, Helga cqmarried another survivor, Eric Newmark. She did not set out to lead a religious life, and she explored Buddhism and Catholicism before returning to her family's Jewish faith and launching a career in Jewish education.
Over lunch with Borovitz in 1988, she mentioned loftier aspirations.
"She said to me, 'You know, I feel very fulfilled teaching kids, but there is more I want to give and more I want to learn,'x" Borovitz said. "She said, 'I want to learn more about my Judaism and immerse myself in study and to understand and confront the God within me and outside of me.'x"
On her second try she was accepted by the Reform movement's Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion. She completed the program in eight years and was ordained in 2000. Borovitz supported her throughout her studies and provided an internship at Beth Shalom.
Borovitz said he warned Rabbi Newmark that the odds of finding a pulpit at her age would be daunting. That did not faze the newly minted rabbi. A thriving career was not the point.
Rabbi Newmark served at Barnert Temple for two years until declining health intervened. She had pulpit responsibilities, taught children and adults and participated in life-cycle events. She also spoke about her Holocaust experiences, both at the synagogue and in the community.
"So many people have pain in their lives and struggle to make sense of it," Barnert Temple Rabbi Elysecq Frishman said. "Helga demonstrated how to make sense of your life in the most positive and purposeful way."
Carol Cohen said she and her siblings were squarely behind their mother's late-in-life rabbinical career.
But what really inspired her, Cohen said, was "that she went through what she went through and still was a happy and productive person and mother."
Rabbi Newmark is survived by her children, Debbie Leffler of Norwalk, Ohio; Carol Cohen of Boonton and Ed Newmark of Avenel, and nine grandchildren. Her husband died in 2006.
She instructed that her casket be festooned with a rainbow array of balloons.
"That was quintessential Helga," Borovitz said. "Here was a woman who lived a very serious and sometimes tragic life, but she had a sense of humor. It was ironically poetic her funeral was on Purim."
At Paramus' Beth El Cemetery, the rabbi's grandchildren released the balloons into the sky.
Published in The Record/Herald News on Mar. 14, 2012