Meet Long Time Member Lena Rajna
By Jessy Hirsch
Lena Rajna was born in Stockholm, Sweden during a time when Judaism was not a commonly practiced religion in Northern Europe. In fact, the majority of the Swedish population was of Lutheran Christian faith (which still holds true to this day), including her.
She wasn’t religious growing up, which was common in Sweden. Holidays and other festive gatherings were celebrated together, but people weren’t that observant. However, because it used to be mandatory for everyone to be affiliated with some type of recognized religion, she was a member of the Lutheran Church. She didn’t know that much about Judaism at the time, but recalls only 1-2 Jewish students being in each of her classes throughout her educational years.
After completing her education, Lena moved to Northern Sweden where she met a college grad named Jussi, who she would later marry. Jussi was a Holocaust survivor from Hungary who emigrated to Sweden during the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. He attended university in Stockholm where he received a degree in engineering. After years of working in Stockholm, he and Lena moved to Marin County in 1966. They would continue to move around the Bay Area until they settled in San Jose.
It wasn’t until 1968 when Lena was pregnant with her oldest daughter that she converted to Judaism. She recalls the process being more challenging than she originally thought but explained how important it was for her and her husband to keep the Jewish lineage alive. They joined Beth David soon after. At the time that they joined, membership was at about 50 families and everyone gathered in a garage on Stelling Road.
Many aspects of Beth David have changed since the Rajna’s joined in 1968. Women are now able to read from the Torah, and the synagogue upgraded from a garage to a large building inclusive of a Hebrew School program. Lena remembers the close friends her three kids met while attending Hebrew School, and that some of those friendships are still strong to this day. What she loves most about Beth David is that there is a place for everyone, observant or non-observant.
Celebrating holidays has always been important to Lena, even before moving to the US and converting to Judaism. While she does love having Passover Seders with her family and friends (where they break out in Swedish drinking songs and old campfire tunes), observing/celebrating Shabbat every Friday is her absolute favorite. In fact, she and her husband owned a bakery, so they always had a fresh Challah on their table. All in all, celebrating holidays with her family has motivated her to keep her Jewish identity strong – she wants to be able to pass on her Jewish traditions while ensuring that her family never forgets where she came from.
I decided to participate in this initiative because I am fascinated by the idea that the chain of decisions a person makes can decide how their life turns out; how one simple choice can change their story. The biggest life lesson I learned from this experience is the importance of holding on to your roots while making the most out of your new journey, and never losing sight of who you are. In Lena’s case, she converted to Judaism and practiced in a way that was comfortable for her, while holding on to her Swedish roots. I’m incredibly honored to have had the opportunity to get to know Lena and hear her story. I know how important it is to pass on our history from generation to generation, and how much there is to learn from doing so.
Building Bridges is an exciting new initiative at Congregation Beth David formed to connect teens and college students with longstanding Beth David members. For more information, please contact Helaine Green and Bonnie Slavitt, Building Bridges coordinators at BuildingBridges@beth-david.org