Rabbah Rona Matlow was born in Arcadia, California in 1959, to parents from Chicago. In hir early years, the family moved around a lot—first in southern California, then the northern part of the state. After a few years in Palo Alto, they settled in San Jose. Rona’s brother and sister still live in the Bay Area. Rona was the rebel—left San Jose in 1979 to join the U.S. Navy.
Growing up, Jewish practice was a sort of mixed bag in the Matlow home. Rona’s father was quasi-Orthodox, but Rona’s mother was secular. This led to a lot of confusion of practice. Further complicating things was the reality that Rona’s father had a difficult time fitting in with most congregations. As a result, they were not members of any congregation for any length of time. Further, many common home rituals such as washing before Motzi and Havdallah were not done in the Matlow home.
As early as first grade, Rona has memories of always playing with the girls, rather than the boys. Normally children play with same-gendered/sexed children as they are socialized to do. This was a sign of hir being trans even though ze did not know this at the time. Rona knows now that this was so, and also sees a similarity to our Father Jacob, who as the Torah states, “was a simple man who dwelled in tents.” (Gen. 25:27) Given that at the time women stayed in the tents, and men were in the field, this was a radical act on Jacob’s part, and Rona and other queer scholars read this as genderqueer identity on Jacob’s part.
As ze states in various works, Rona grappled with hir gender identity throughout her school days, even without understanding this. When puberty struck, ze was mortified with the appearance of body hair, and would periodically shave it, even though it would lead to a sexual assault (not rape) in the boys’ locker room. Rona urges queer teens to be aware of their actions and be prepared to defend themselves, because predators always sense the vulnerable. Ze also cross-dressed at home, wearing her mother’s clothing and shoes which fit hir quite well.
In high school, Rona did have the opportunity to participate in NCSY (formerly known as National Conference of Synagogue Youth) and went to a couple youth group trips: a Shabbaton in San Francisco and a retreat in Lake Tahoe. These were amazing experiences for hir that brought spiritual awakening as well as physical healing by leaving the polluted air of the Santa Clara Valley. Rona reflects that had things been different in her family life it is very possible ze might have pursued the rabbinate much sooner, but of course, as Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) states, “what is bent cannot be straightened, and what is lacking cannot be counted.” (1:15) In other words, you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.
After graduating from Willow Glen High School in San Jose, Rona attended San Jose State University with a major in chemistry. Ze worked a summer at the Lawrence Livermore Lab as a research assistant. In hir fourth semester, ze decided to withdraw from college and enlist in the Navy. This was April 1979.
Rona attended boot camp in San Diego, Machinist’s Mate Class A School in Great Lakes, Illinois and Nuclear Power School in Orlando, Florida. Ze was selected for a Navy ROTC scholarship. As an MM2 (E5) ze began as a Midshipman. During hir two years at UCLA, ze did a patrol on USS MG Vallejo (SSBN 658) and completed a B.S. degree in chemistry. Rona was commissioned in June 1982 as an ensign.
Rona attended Nuclear Power School again, then Prototype training and Submarine School. In November 1983, ze reported on board the U.S. Hawkbill (SSN 666) as the main propulsion assistant. The following day ze attended Sabbath services at the Aloha Jewish Chapel, where ze met the woman ze would marry, Susan Campbell.
At the time, Rona was not practicing Judaism rigorously. Susan did not have a Get, the Jewish Divorce, from her first husband. They were married at the Honolulu Family Court in May of 1984. Susan had two children from a first marriage who they raised together. They were never able to have any more children. It would turn out that Rona was sterile, part of her being trans.
After an ear injury during a deployment, Rona left the submarine fleet. The family moved to Alameda, California where ze was assigned as damage control assistant on the USS California (CGN 36). Ze completed a WESTPAC deployment and earned Nuclear Chief Engineer and Surface Warfare Officer qualifications. Following this they returned to Orlando, where ze taught at the Nuclear Power School.
After Surface Warfare Department Head school in Newport, Rhoda Island, Rona was assigned as weapons officer on USS Capodanno (FF 1093). Ze qualified for command during that tour, as well as completing Mediterranean and Caribbean deployments. They then moved to Norfolk, Virginia.
During the time in Norfolk, Rona served as radiological control officer on USS Shenandoah (AD 44), completing a Mediterranean deployment. Ze was then radiological controls officer on the Atlantic Surface Nuclear Power Mobile Training Team. After that ze served as the decommissioning main propulsion assistant in USS Long Beach (CGN 9), where we also completed a six month counter-narcotics deployment. Rona then served as head, Networked Command and Control testing, at Operational Test and Evaluation Force (OPTEVFOR).
Ze earned a Master of Engineering Management (MEM) degree at Old Dominion University while at OPTEVFOR. While at OPTEVFOR Rona was anticipating early retirement and work as a defense contractor in project management of the systems ze was in charge of testing. During the capstone course for the MEM degree, ze had an awakening of sorts. Rona realized that ze should not be pursuing a defense contracting position. Rather, ze should be seeking a spiritual pursuit, seeking the rabbinate. Following the adage in Avot, “Make for yourself a rabbi and acquire for yourself a friend,” ze began studying with a noted Conservative rabbi near the Navy base in Norfolk, and becoming much more engaged Jewishly. Ze had an initial visit with the Jewish Theological Seminary in NY in 1997, where they asked hir if ze would consider serving as a military chaplain. At that time ze was looking forward to retirement from the military and explained so to the people at the Seminary.
Following this, Ze and Susan returned to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii for a final tour as the Cruise Missile (including Tomahawk) manager at the Pacific Fleet Headquarters. During this tour, President Clinton had our military engaged in the Balkans and Iraq, so many Tomahawks were used.
While Rona was attending a conference in Washington DC, hir father had a massive heart attack and ultimately succumbed, in April 1999. Rona was not able to return home in time to say goodbye, but got home a number of hours later. The funeral was the next day. Due to the small size of the Jewish community in Hawaii, routinely saying Kaddish was not possible, which was very difficult for hir.
Also, during this time, Susan and Rona had a wedding under the Huppah, the Jewish wedding, after Susan was finally able to obtain a Get from her ex, at the Hickam Air Force Base Officer’s Club.
Throughout hir time in the Navy, in hir off duty time, Rona continued to periodically explore cross-dressing and removal of body hair. Ze did not know at the time why this was compelling. Susan was supportive of these activities however.
Following retirement from the Navy in 2001, Rona and family moved to Philadelphia where ze attended Gratz College. At Gratz ze earned M.A. Degrees in Jewish Education and Jewish Studies, graduating in 2004. Ze also taught at several synagogue schools and a Jewish Day School. Rona also spent two summers in Israel studying while at Gratz.
In 2003, Rona entered the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York as a rabbinical student. Ze was ordained in May, 2009 as a rabbi. During hir time at AJR, ze also completed two units (800 hours) of Clinical Pastoral Education (chaplaincy) and served several congregations as a student rabbi. During the chaplain residency, injuries ze had sustained in the Navy became severe, leading to chronic neck pain. After several neck operations, ze was left unable to work, due to various pain issues, and went on full disability through the VA and Social Security.
Following ordination, Rona and Susan moved to Olympia Washington, where they currently reside. Rona became active at a local congregation, serving the role of volunteer rabbi. Ze became involved with The Soldier’s Project (www.thesoldiersproject.org) providing free counseling to veterans of post 9/11 service, confronting post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Ze provides these services using the tele-medicine model, talking with veterans over any medium required to serve them where they are.
In 2011, Rona’s mother was diagnosed with lung cancer. She was a lifelong smoker, as were many from her generation. Rona went home to help care for her mother through the surgery and for several months afterwards. During hir mother’s recovery, Rona’s first hevruta from Seminary, Harvey Israelton, died from lung cancer as well. He was a delayed 9/11 death. Harvey lived in Gramercy Park and had been exposed to all of the environmental toxins from the collapse of the buildings. That was an extremely challenging time for hir.
In early 2015, Rona started becoming aware of hir gender dysphoria. After discussions with hir wife, friends and family, ze made the decision to transition to living full time as a woman. Ironically, it was hir disability and the medications ze was on that brought things to a forefront, because they resulted in hormonal imbalances that led to medical and personal investigations and reflection. These are discussed in detail in hir essay found at http://www.rabbahrona.us/search?q=when+a+bad, “When a Bad Thing is Good, Part 2”. When ze came out to Susan, Susan said she always knew something was different about Rona, but she just couldn’t identify what it was, and that it made perfect sense. Rona’s psychiatrist at the Veteran’s Administration responded the same way.
In November 2015, Rona came out as Transgender. Ze joined the Trans Lifeline (www.translifeline.org) as an operator and ultimately team lead, support counselor and board member. Ze left Trans Lifeline in 2017 and then was a facilitator for Pizza Klatch, www.PizzaKlatch.org, providing support for queer students and allies in local high schools.
In April of 2016, Rona’s mother was admitted to the hospital with a lung infection. She stated to Rona that she didn’t think she would ever go home again, and she was correct. After the hospital she went to a nursing home where she stayed until her death. During her time in the nursing home, she told Rona, “I don’t really understand your being trans, but I am your mother. I will never turn my back on you. I do not understand how any mother could.” The sad reality is that far too many parents do turn their backs on their queer and trans children. Rona’s mother passed in October 2016. Ze received wonderful support from the Jewish community in Silicon Valley, which made things much better.
Rona continues to serve the Jewish, trans and veteran communities in many ways. For more information, please check hir websites www.RabbahRona.us and www.RonaMatlow.com or hir social media @RabbahRona.
Rona has received the following military awards: Meritorious Service Medal, Navy/Marine Corps Commendation Medal (three awards), Navy/Marine Corps Achievement Medal (two awards), numerous unit, campaign and personal awards. Surface Warfare Officer, and SSBN Ballistic Missile Patrol Pin. While ze has the Cold War Victory Medal on hir rack, it is not authorized for wear on military uniforms. It is, however, authorized for veterans.
Rona was honored as an Academic Honor Grad of Boot Camp Company 79-917. Ze received the following academic awards from Gratz College: The Nettie R. Ginsburg and Nathaniel I.S. Goldman Prize (twice), the graduate prize for academic accomplishment in the field of education (twice), the graduate prize for academic accomplishment in the field of Liturgy/Rabbinics and the Rema Feinberg Award for Excellence in Jewish Studies. Ze was selected to be valedictorian for Gratz College graduation.
Rona was also chosen by the Washington State Jewish Historical Society as one of their Twenty Women Agents of Change for their Fiftieth Anniversary exhibit. Information on this exhibit may be found at https://www.wsjhs.org/museum/categories/jewish-life/agents-of-change.html
As an expert on transgender and military issues, Rona has spoken at conferences about transgender/religious law intersections, as well as about the presidential attempt to ban transgender military service. Many of these events are available for viewing on hir website: http://www.rabbahrona.us/
(This biographical statement provided by Rona Matlow.)
Biography Date: Npvember 2019