Holocaust survivor ordained as a Reform rabbi at age 67

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NEW YORK — The Holocaust destroyed any notion of God that Helga Newmark previously contemplated.

But more than 50 years later, she has been ordained as a rabbi and has marked the end of a long journey riddled with hurdles.

"I always liked challenges, I guess," the 67-year-old woman said.

She joined the rabbinate on Sunday, when the Reform movement's Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion made her their 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.

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.

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.

She suddenly began to wonder "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. I just wanted to see answers."

Newmark investigated numerous 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 teaching Newmark.

For years, she studied and served as principal of Temple Emanuel in Westfield, N.J. Then in 1987 at the age of 55, she decided she needed another challenge and approached HUC.

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.

Newmark was finally accepted. After eight years of training, she was ready to receive her ordination.

"I've been striving and dreaming and reaching for so long," she said.

Newmark is unsure whether 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 one-time feelings about God, she now feels quite differently.

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