Remembering Rabbi Janice Garfunkel- by Margaret J. Meyer

Janice was a fighter. When she believed in a cause she threw herself into it. This was true whether she was actively championing civil rights, defending her beloved Israel, urging colleagues to preserve and observe tradition within Reform Judaism or, during her last months, literally fighting for her life. Though I could not claim to have been a close friend of Janice’s, our paths crossed many times in her all too brief life, and I came to know her well and admire her greatly.

Born in New Jersey to German refugees, Janice grew up in Dayton, Ohio. A strong Zionist from her youth, she didn’t just move there to “try it out,” but came on Aliyah, for a while living on Reform kibbutz Lotan, where my son Danny also lived, for a time. We worked together in the tomato fields. Back in the States, Janice studied at HUC – a bright, strong student, passionate about her ideals. Our student days overlapped in Cincinnati.

Determined to become a mother, yet without funds for expensive adoption or invitro programs, Janice did what she was best at: She researched every possibility. She discovered that as an Israeli she was entitled to invitro in Israel, basically for free. Off to Haifa she went – twice – to become the mother of two wonderful daughters. Later she encouraged others wishing to become parents to travel to Israel to pursue parenthood.

As a rabbi Janice served in Washington DC, at the RAC and also at a small congregation in Hagerstown, MD. While living in DC Janice became active in the lay led minyan at Adas Israel, where my son Jonathan and his family are active. I still recall my grandchildren and her girls chasing each other around the hall during the Oneg after Shabbat services when they were little.  When she wasn’t in Hagerstown on a week-end, Janice could be found at Adas, often chanting Torah or helping to lead services. After she left the DC area, she remained beloved in the Adas community which held a shloshim for her after her death.

Janice moved to Springfield, Ohio to be nearer family, serving the congregation that — how ironic – Marrianne Gevirtz had served before succumbing to cancer. It was a good move; Janice and the girls were happy in the community; they were near the larger city of Dayton with her parents and friends from her youth. But then illness struck. Janice was diagnosed with breast cancer. She bravely struggled on, continuing her rabbinical duties while undergoing treatment. After a while she seemed to be in remission and thought all would be well again when life took a terrible twist.

Janice’s cancer returned at the same time the Springfield congregation realized it had shrunk to the point of no longer being able to afford a rabbi. Once again, Janice researched. What would be the best for her and her girls? Her parents were elderly, her mother dealing with dementia. She decided she couldn’t remain in the Dayton area. Janice had a brother in Cincinnati so moved there, renting a home, finding doctors and treatment centers, and establishing her daughters, one of whom has special needs, in schools. We reconnected. Undergoing treatment, Janice nevertheless became an active part of the community, joining our Board of Rabbis, becoming a regular part of Adath Israel congregation, making many new friends through her daughters’ schools.

Once more she thought seemed to be in remission; once again the cancer came back, this time aggressively and entering the brain. Janice researched everywhere and everything; she interrogated doctors as to the best treatment, read articles, did everything possible to extend her life. She so wanted to be there for her girls. Even when she had little energy left – many of us drove her to doctors’ appointments and errands – she still remained a rabbi. You may have read her CCAR parashat hashavua columns written during her last days. She was thinking of the future; she still had questions, so many questions. In Parashat Noach, the last column she wrote – shortly before her own death, she asked:

“What are the ramifications, philosophically of recognizing that humanity might end some day? If we gain immortality through the good deeds we do, what if no one is left to remember or benefit from those deeds? How do we live our lives in the face of eventual, possible oblivion? Or does the rainbow promise mean we will never be utterly wiped out?”

We are richer for having known Rabbi Janice Garfunkel. Now we are left to remember and benefit from her life and deeds. May her memory be for a blessing.


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