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Survivor Who Lost God in Shoah to Be Oldest Rabbinical Graduate

May 18, 2000
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The Holocaust destroyed any notion of God that Helga Newmark may have previously contemplated.

But more than 50 years later, Newmark, 67, is being ordained a rabbi, marking the end of a long journey riddled with hurdles.

“I always liked challenges, I guess,” Newmark said.

She’ll join the rabbinate on May 21, when the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion, after rejecting Newmark’s first application for admission in 1987, will make her its oldest female graduate.

An only child born in Essen, Germany, Newmark moved with her parents to Holland when she was 1. Her family lived a secular lifestyle.

“I don’t remember Shabbat candles being lit on a regular basis,” she said. “My grandparents were Orthodox because there was not anything else around.”

When the Nazis occupied the Netherlands during the war, Newmark and her family were sent to the Westerbork concentration camp.

“That was the last time I saw my father,” she said.

Newmark was imprisoned in Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Terezin. She and her mother survived, but they lost most of their extended family.

“I came out of the camp and my mother said, `There’s no God. If there was then things wouldn’t have turned out this way,'” Newmark recalled.

At 16, Newmark and her mother immigrated to America.

“I would have loved to take the first boat back,” she said of the troubles she faced as a poor foreigner who did not speak English or understand American culture.

Throughout her adolescence, Newmark never identified as a Jew.

“I never gave God a thought,” she said until she gave birth to her first child, a daughter. Because of a previous infection, doctors had told her that she had only a 50 percent chance of conceiving a child.

“When I had this child,” she said, she wondered “how I was going to answer the questions, `Is there a God?’ and, `Why can’t I go to church with my friends?’

“God didn’t ever enter into it,” she said. “I just wanted to see answers.”

Newmark investigated many religions in search of those answers, but opted for her own in the end.

“I figured I might as well remain Jewish.”

Her first formal introduction to Judaism came when she joined a Conservative synagogue, where a student rabbi suggested she become a Sunday school teacher.

“I don’t know Hebrew. I don’t know one holiday from another,” she told the rabbi, who, along with his wife, began studying with Newmark.

“Something about my identifying as a survivor with the Jewish people being survivors,” made Judaism relevant.

After years of studying and serving as principal of Temple Emanuel in Westfield, N.J., Newmark, then age 55, decided she needed another challenge and approached HUC.

“I was more intrigued by studying than by the title of rabbi per se.”

HUC, however, required a college degree for admission and Newmark only possessed a high school equivalency diploma. She also suspects she was initially rejected because of her age.

She registered for college and graduated two years later with a bachelor’s degree in administration. She followed that by earning a master’s degree at Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work. Then Newmark returned to HUC.

“I wanted to show them I can still study and I felt I could make some contributions.”

Newmark was finally accepted and after eight years of training, is ready to receive her ordination.

“I’ve been striving and dreaming and reaching for so long,” she said.

Newmark is unsure if she will seek her own pulpit, saying she would prefer to act as an assistant rabbi, “where I can do a little bit of everything.”

As for Newmark’s original ambivalence toward God, she now feels differently.

“Hopefully, I can role model what I believe in so strongly — one God and that there is a future for Jews.”

EDITORS: Here is an update to the `Iran 13′ story sent out Monday. Changes are made throughout.

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