Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto has been blessed with extraordinary lay leaders, not least its presidents. Not only did these women and men devote much of their talent and energy to the congregation but almost invariably they were also leaders in the larger community, locally, nationally and beyond.
One of them was Nancy Ruth, who died a month ago. She was the second female president in the 160-year-old history of the congregation. (Since then, there have been three others, including the incumbent.)
Nancy was reared in the tradition of classical Reform in the United States. As a true liberal, she knew that Judaism has to be open not only to new ideas and trends, but also to traditional tenets and practices. She, therefore, supported the changes in the congregation that were introduced over many years, even those she found unfamiliar, because she knew that they weren’t signs of “a mindless return to Orthodoxy” but functions of growth, change and maturity.
As a result of our co-operation and mutual trust, she and I – president and senior rabbi – ended up better friends at the end of her two-year term than we had been when she first took office.
One of the many qualities I came to admire in Nancy was her love of Jewish learning. She had taught in the religious school of Holy Blossom and in other congregations for many years prior to assuming office. The good teacher that she was meant that she never stopped learning. Judaism enriched her life, and she knew how to transmit it to her students. Her presidency was also part of her desire to learn.
Much of her Judaism was focused on Israel. She regarded commitment to the Jewish state as reflective of the congregation she served. It was part and parcel of leadership. She knew that the temple’s commitment to Israel didn’t depend on which way the pews were facing in the sanctuary. The canard that the members wanted to turn their backs on Israel because worshippers weren’t facing Jerusalem was an affront to her, as it has been to many of us.
She visited Israel often and studied there. In her later years, she spent several months there annually. Of late, we were neighbours in Jerusalem. It further cemented the friendship with my wife and myself.
Though Nancy attended worship services regularly, both in Toronto and in Jerusalem, the focus of her Jewish life was responsibility to and for others. It took precedence over ritual and custom. She reached out to all, just like her husband Sam had done. As executive director of Baycrest and later as president of its foundation, he turned his professional commitment into a vocation. Their sons and grandchildren have followed in their footsteps.
Nancy’s concerns went far beyond the parochial. As one of the leaders of the Reform movement in North America and the World Union for Progressive Judaism, she manifested her care for people everywhere. Characteristically, both Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the immediate past president of the North American Union for Reform Judaism, and Rabbi Daniel Freelander, current president of the World Union, paid tribute to her at her funeral.
Her faith was even deeper than her thirst for knowledge, her love of Israel and her care for others. It manifested itself in unforgettable ways on her deathbed when she looked back on her life with gratitude for the love of her family, her many friends, the goodness that came her way and the privilege to serve her people.
As my wife and I said goodbye to her not many days before she left this earth, I thought of the biblical patriarchs parting from their children.
Reform Jews aren’t Chassidim. They may not venerate saintly rabbis, but they have role models. Nancy Ruth was one of them. She motivated many to follow in her footsteps. I think it’s the best tribute she wished for herself.