Early in the 1920s, Fay Sonnenreich Trubow did the unthinkable one Sabbath morning at Washington Hebrew Congregation. With the permission of Rabbi Abram Simon, she and another young girl sat in the pulpit, held the Torah and read from it.
"I still remember the shocked expressions on the faces of the congregation," she recalled many years later. "Dr. Simon told us afterwards that the board of trustees was angry with him for permitting girls to participate in what traditionally belonged to the men. But he believed in developing the potential of each individual, and his encouragement made a lasting impact upon our lives."
Shortly afterward, in June 1922, the young girl who helped defy tradition in the name of progress nervously walked down the aisle to the pulpit for her confirmation into a life grounded in the teachings of Judaism. As the world changed around her -- from the "miracle of radio" to the release of the iPod -- Trubow changed with it, growing more determined to push past any obstacles and encouraging others to do the same.
From Washington to New York and back, as a temple administrator, camp counselor and manager of her son's business, Trubow got things done. Until a week before she died, on Oct. 2 at age 97 of a cerebral hemorrhage, she was working in her office at the Watergate. She was the ultimate administrator. She was "the power behind the throne," her son, Michael Sonnenreich, once said.
"In another era, this woman wouldn't have run a temple and a camp. She would have run a country," said a niece, Elizabeth Randall of Sherman Oaks, Calif. "She was ahead of her time in every sense of the word."
She was born Fay Rosenberg in the spring of 1908 in Washington, the middle child of Dora and Harry Rosenberg. After graduating from Central High School at 15, she was accepted conditionally at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. The school recommended that she spend a year becoming more socially mature. She thought otherwise, writing once that "I didn't see the logic of that." Instead, she went to Wilson Teachers College, now part of the University of the District of Columbia, and graduated at 17 with honors. She began teaching elementary students and at a trade school.
After two years, she moved to New York. In 1930, she eloped with Emanuel H. Sonnenreich, and together they worked to help Temple Israel grow. She was temple administrator and then executive secretary for 30 years, responsible for planning weddings down to the tiniest detail, helping with funerals, writing speeches for the president of the congregation, editing a newsletter and myriad other tasks. She was one of the first, if not the first, women on the temple board.
Rabbi Judith Lewis recalled the time Trubow and her husband brought a 4-foot-tall, 2-foot-wide rock from Mount Sinai that had been on display at the New York World's Fair to Temple Israel.
"They picked it up and stored it at camp, and when Temple Israel built their new temple, they brought it there," Lewis said. The Torah now rests on the rock in the ark.
Lewis said Trubow used to tell that story with a twinkle in her eyes. "She was beautiful and elegant, even though she was this high-powered professional," she said. "She was always a lady, I imagine, even when she was carrying this rock in the pickup."
For 35 years, Trubow, who was known as Aunt Fay, transformed summer into a time of wonderment for the hundreds of campers, including actor Peter Falk, who came to Camp High Point in West Shokan, N.Y. Even after the camp closed in 1970, Trubow kept in touch with many of the campers. A camp reunion was held in Washington in 1998 to coincide with Trubow's 90th birthday.
"She was like the last vestige of this memory we had," said Karen Ram of Denver, who recalled that Trubow allowed Ram's mother to be a head counselor so she could go to camp for free after her father died. "Camp itself was great . . . but people kept coming back because of Fay."
Nina Gafni of McLean said her grandmother could relate to anyone. "She could connect with people of all generations. If you spoke with her, you got the impression that this is not your typical 97-year-old person. That's one of the things that endeared her to lots of people."
Her first husband died in 1966.
After her second husband, Irving A. Trubow, died in 1976, she moved back to Washington and began working in her son's pharmaceutical company, Kikaku America International.
She learned to use a computer in her seventies, wondering how she had gotten along without it.
She wrote a column for a health care newsletter from 1977 until Sept. 29. She also worked with her grandson, Peter Sonnenreich, in publishing health-related trend reports.
Trubow also returned to Washington Hebrew Congregation, where in 1982 she spoke to a new class of confirmands that included her granddaughter, Gafni. She encouraged them, just as Simon had inspired her, to fulfill their potential.