A Profile of Ruth Rosenthal
The Eternal Activist
by Rabbi Don Levy
All Jews alive today, live under the shadow of the Shoah. It is an inescapable fact, underscoring the reality that is Jewish life today, whether here in Israel or in any of the lands of our habitation. The Shoah presents a supreme challenge to every Jew alive. How, in the shadow of Auschwitz, can we make sense of this thing called Jewishness, and build for ourselves a positive force in our lives?
I offer you Exhibit A: Ruth Rosenthal.
Ruth is a member of our community here at Netzach Yisrael in Ashkelon. She’s probably not the most instantly recognizable member of our community, and not because she’s at all shy, but because she’s not one we often see in shul on Shabbat. You will see her at Talmud class, because she has chosen the path of learning and erudition, more than ritual life, as her nexus with our religious community.
Ruth was born in Switzerland, where her Dutch Jewish parents had found sanctuary during the Second World War. Her family’s roots were in Galicia, in Poland, where her father was born. When she was one year old, Ruth’s parents returned to Holland. Her grandparents on her mother’s side survived the war in hiding. Her father’s parents were betrayed by one of her grandfather’s study partners, a fellow Jew: they were deported, and perished at Auschwitz.
Although from a family with deep religious roots – both sides of the family included generations of Rabbis, teachers, and cantors – Ruth’s parents were steeped in secular culture: her father was a Doctor of Chemistry and a patent lawyer, her mother a professional Pianist, and their home was an island of music, art, and books. Ruth was a freethinker in her own right by the time she’d finished gymnasium. She and her younger brother – she was one of four children: two boys and two girls – went off to university in Amsterdam, from their home in The Hague. Ruth began her academic career studying Social Psychology and Political Science. But love and marriage came and interrupted her studies. Her husband was also a student, and when they married, he was starting out on the path of Chozer Letshuvah – one ‘returning’ to Tradition – a path that led him to enroll in yeshiva in Strasburg, France and integrate into a very frum community there. Ruth tried very hard to live the life of a traditional wife, but after a time when her husband made a one-eighty and became a Chozer Leshe’elah – one who has resumed questioning – she was not unhappy about the turn of events! By this time, they had three girls. Today, those three daughters are all successful professionals in Holland. Together, they have given Ruth seven grandchildren.
Returning to Holland from Strasburg, Ruth resumed her studies and changed her major subject to English. She learned translation and interpreting, and after finishing her studies she worked for a time as an instructor in the translation/interpreting institute. (Years later after moving to Israel, she also studied Business Administration at Bar Ilan University.)
After two years as an instructor, Ruth returned to an earlier avocation: Jewish and Zionist Affairs. In university, she’d been a board member of the Zionist Student Organization; although secular in her sensibilities, she’d found that being around Jews and being involved in Jewish and Zionist causes, energized her. Now, she became a key staff member at CIDI, the Center for Information and Documentation on Israel, which Ruth describes as the Dutch answer to AIPAC, ADL, and other Jewish organizations, all rolled into one. She found those years, when she was frequently the public face of Israel and Jewish issues in Holland, as well as an important Jewish voice for Human Rights generally, quite exhilarating. And yet…she understands that the Shoah, and the need to continue Jewish life in its wake, underscored everything she did professionally during those years, and in reality, everything that she had been involved in all her adult life. Ruth truly had taken the challenge of the Shoah and made a positive Jewish life in the shadow of Auschwitz.
It was during her years with CIDI that her marriage broke down and she and her husband divorced. It was also during those years that she confronted the decision that every diaspora Jew who is active in Israel advocacy faces: how could she remain true to her calling, and not make Aliyah, live in Israel? And this, not having an idealized view of Israel: while working at CIDI, she wrote an article very critical of Israel for engaging in ‘Operation Peace for Galilee’ and took considerable flack for it. But despite Israel’s imperfections, she knew she had to live here. After a particularly moving experience, attending a Zionist Congress as a delegate from her Conservative Synagogue in Amsterdam, she decided that it was time to make that move.
At the congress, Ruth happened to meet Michael Bar Dov, a delegate from the Israel Labor Party who lived in Ashkelon and who was himself separated and going through a divorce. That led her to Ashkelon as her new home in the Jewish Homeland. Ruth and partner Michael have lived in Ashkelon ever since. (You will read more about Michael in a profile of his life in the near future: stay tuned!)
Having moved to Ashkelon, Ruth plied several career tracks over the years. At first, she did community work at Project Renewal. Then, she tried her hand in industry, doing marketing for PazChem, a manufacturing concern located just outside of Ashkelon. She utilized her considerable language skills – she has fluent English, French, and German in addition to Dutch and Hebrew – in dealing with international customers. Finally, she struck out on her own, creating a translation business that enabled her to finish her working years as her own boss. She’s retired now, but she describes trying to retire from translating as being like a smoker trying to kick the habit: typically, it takes several tries before one succeeds. Similarly, every time she tried to hang up her translator’s hat, it kept ending up back on her head. But now she’s fully retired and is enjoying life.
And what about Ruth’s relationship with her chosen hometown, Ashkelon? Although she has lived here for years, she admits that her ‘marriage’ to Ashkelon has not always been easy. She says that, at the end of the day, she’s a city girl and always has found the attractions of a larger city to be irresistible. At one time, before her realization that Israel was where she belonged, she visited New York City and thought that the Big Apple was where she wanted to live.
Given this preference, how has Ruth managed to be happy in Ashkelon? She and Michael keep their intellectual edge sharp by participating in various discussion groups: they love their Saturday evening Philosophy Group, and there’s the aforementioned Talmud Class as well as the Thursday English-language Torah Study Group. It’s these intellectual exchanges, and their relationships with the people whom they’ve met through them, that have kept them happy in Ashkelon. That, and taking advantage of such ‘highbrow’ cultural activities as are on offer here. Finally, she has remained active in philanthropic work – first as a member of Rotary International for many years, and more recently on her own – and in human rights causes, in which she continues to engage. Those of us who know Ruth well, know that New York’s loss is Ashkelon’s gain.