Before the Plane Trip, A Personal Journey

Schlesiches Tor, a historic station in Berlin, Germany, circa 1900.

by Judith Kates

For many years, I resisted going to Germany or Eastern Europe, but when I learned about this trip to Berlin and Prague, I spoke without thinking: “I’d really like to go on that journey.”

Reflecting now on that immediate response (and the fact that I didn’t have second thoughts afterward), I’ve learned a few things about what has changed and what has crystallized for me, individually and, I think, as a member of my generation.

Growing up in the 40’s and 50’s, I heard virtually nothing from my family about what had happened to Jews in Europe, despite the fact that, as I later learned, my father, born in Romania, had family members still there in the 1930’s and 40’s. I only heard about the family that had gone to what was then Palestine in the 30’s.

But on my own, I read obsessively through the late 50’s and 60’s about what came to be called the Holocaust, resulting in deep ambivalence to the point of aversion to things German (and to some extent, to Eastern Europe as well). I was a classic example of the American Jew who, in words I heard from the eloquent survivor novelist, Ilona Karmel, bore “scars without wounds.” I never wanted to go.

In later years, as I learned and thought more about history, ethics, and intergenerational legacies, that position modified.

But I developed other reasons to count myself out of journeys to Germany and Eastern Europe to visit sites where Jews had been tortured and murdered. For decades now, I’ve been troubled by the reliance on Shoah memory to construct and insure Jewish identity and allegiance. I remain haunted by hearing, more than 20 years ago, a 16-year-old at his Confirmation ceremony in synagogue declaring, “I’m a Jew because of the Holocaust.” I’m as compelled as anyone by Emil Fackenheim’s 614th commandment. But my unhappiness at the extent to which we as a community seemed to be offering the history of degradation and murder of Jews as the foundation of Jewish identity made me resistant to participating in a Shoah-related trip. I wanted to dedicate my time and energy to sharing the spiritual and ethical depth and complexity of our heritage of text, ritual, and interpretive creativity as the foundation for renewed Jewish life.

But this trip, focused on honoring the life and spiritual legacy of the first woman rabbi, completely reframes the meaning of such a journey for me. My teaching of Jewish texts to adults in the community has always been a “calling” as much as a career, but for the past ten years, as I’ve had the opportunity to focus my efforts on the teaching of rabbis in training, it has become a “vocation” in the original sense of the word. The opportunity to help shape the ways that rabbis, leaders of our communities, read and teach the classic texts of our tradition, to help them see through feminist lenses, has energized and renewed me as a teacher and as a member of the Jewish community.

It has also been extremely important to me to offer guidance and support to the many women students at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College. To be able to bear witness to the courage and dedication of this remarkable ancestor of all subsequent women rabbis, who claimed her place and offered herself in service to the Jewish people in the worst time and place, will be a gift I can offer them. Jewish selfhood depends on historical memory. When I heard about this trip, it seemed connected in a vital way to my understanding of how crucial it is to deepen that memory for Jewish women, especially for those who are or are thinking of becoming rabbis.


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How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Before the Plane Trip, A Personal Journey." (Viewed on May 19, 2024) <>.