Rina Lee Janet: Devoted Leader, Wife, Mother

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The Baltimore Jewish community lost one of its most ardent leaders and advocates on Jan. 15 when Rina Lee Janet (nee Smelkinson) died of cancer at age 62.

Throughout her life, she held various positions in a number of Jewish organizations and left her mark wherever she served.

“Rina deeply cared about many causes and many people,” her husband, Howard, shared. “For Rina, it was about playing a significant role in making the world a better place.”

She took on several leadership roles at The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, serving as president of Associated Women and chairing the Women’s Annual Campaign. She was also founding chair of Chapter Two, an educational program by The Associated to help women find their passions later in life. For the Development Corporation for Israel (also known as Israel Bonds of Maryland), she served both as general chair and chair of the women’s division at different times, earning the Gold Meir Award in 2009 and the Lion of Judah Award in 2017.

At Beth El Congregation, her family’s synagogue, Rina co-chaired Mitzvah 613, a project centered around the scribing of the first Torah written specifically for that congregation. For her sons’ school, Gilman, Rina was president of the Parents’ Association and a member of the board of trustees. In addition, Rina was a president of Levindale Auxiliary and vice president of the Jewish leadership training program Acharai. She was also chair of 11th Mitzvah, a Torah study program created by the Center for Jewish Education.

Rina is mourned by her husband of 40 years, Howard, and two sons and daughters-in-law: Adam, 28, and his wife, Corinne, and Andrew, 31, and wife, Anna. Rina also is survived by her mother, Miriam Smelkinson, and two brothers and sisters-in-law: Ira Smelkinson and wife Lisa; and Jeffrey Smelkinson and wife Deborah.

Beth El Congregation’s Rabbi Steven Schwartz lauded Rina’s commitment not just to her community, but to her family.

“I have not met in my life a more devoted, proud, caring, loving wife, mother, mother-in-law, daughter, sister or aunt than Rina. [Even with] everything she did, all she was involved with, all of her responsibilities and activities — family always came first. And it came second, and third too,” he said.

A Baltimore native and lifelong Marylander, Rina attended Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community. After skipping a grade at Pimlico Junior High School, she graduated from Pikesville Senior High School in the class of 1972. She spent 15 summers at Beth Tfiloh Camps, attending and then, during summers in college, working there.

Rina attended University of Maryland and graduated in 1976 with a degree in journalism. At Maryland Hillel, Rina met Howard. After college, she worked in advertising and became the marketing director of a national mail-order clothing company and married Howard on July 18, 1978.

“I truly believe no one could love anyone more than Rina and I have loved each other, and always will,” Howard said. Howard said he and Rina “didn’t have a ‘til death do us part’ marriage. We will love each other and will be together forever.”

Rina, in a letter she wrote to be read at her memorial service, said she “fell in love two more times” when she and Howard welcomed their two sons, Andrew and Adam.

“For 12 years, Mom left a note in my lunch bag on the first day of school every year expressing her confidence that I would thrive that year and continue to be a successful and loving person,” Andrew remembered. “She continued this tradition via email through four years of college and three years of law school. I replied for the first time in my last year of law school, telling her how much I cherished the notes and her support, and letting her know it was OK if she wanted to send me a note on my first day of work as well. Of course, she did.”

Rina was beloved by many in the Jewish community, Schwartz said.

“Every rabbi needs a rabbi — a person you trust, a person you can call for advice, for wisdom, for support during a tough day,” he said. “Rina was one of my rabbis. When there was a difficult issue, when I needed an impartial voice of wisdom and reason and compassion … when I wasn’t sure which way to go or what was right, I called Rina.”

Practicing Judaism brought her great joy, her husband said.

“She loved regularly attending Shabbat services, decorating the family sukkah, chanting the Haftarah at Rosh Hashanah services, keeping kosher, lighting Shabbat candles, singing the kiddush and motzi at the family’s regular Shabbat dinners, which she would prepare,” he said. “Somehow, she found time to be a great cook. Her corned beef and briskets were delicious.”

That dedication to, and pride in, her Jewish traditions extended to ensuring her sons’ participation in major holidays despite school schedules, making sure they were at synagogue for every major holiday from first to 12th grade.

“[Mom said] that many years down the line, we wouldn’t remember what we would have learned on those days in school, but we would never forget that we spent every holiday focused on observance and celebration,” Andrew said.

Linda Hurwitz, board chair for The Associated, recalled Rina’s “zest for life, passion for people, and a desire to help and heal. She efficiently and effectively carried out every task with purpose.” Hurwitz called Rina “strong yet sensitive, grounded yet creative, dignified and always classy. To know Rina is to love Rina. You just couldn’t help it. Our lives are better because Rina took charge and made things happen. She is an irreplaceable leader and role model.”

Steven Cohen, executive director of the Development Corporation for Israel, echoed these sentiments when he said: “Rina was a spectacular leader. She wanted every meeting to be meaningful, so preparation was always key. Everyone had a role to play, and a follow-up, always with a goal in mind. Rina lifted everyone around her, with her extraordinary intelligence and creativity. She captivated our leadership council with her d’var Torahs. She had such presence.”

“There was nothing casual about Rina,” said Associated president Marc Terrill. “Her intellect, wisdom, tenacity, compassion, Jewish values, and her neshamah were all in, in every endeavor. Rina was taken from us way too soon, but her long legacy of a life well lived will be forever present.”

“How can we imagine a community without her?” Schwartz asked in his eulogy for Rina. “She was a leader without ego. It was never about her. It was about her family, her friends, her community, the State of Israel [and] the organization. When Rina said the Shehechiyanu, she said it with all of her heart.”

Rina wrote a letter to friends and family, which Schwartz read — with a few pauses as he choked up with tears — at her memorial service. “I considered myself a very, very lucky person,” Rina wrote. “I was healthy, I was happy, I was content, and I was proud. I had a very joyful, fulfilling life, although it may have been too brief.”

“Rina’s passing will never separate us,” said Howard. “And from her new home, she will continue to help family, friends and Jewish causes in any way possible.”

Erica Rimlinger is a local freelance writer.

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