Stepping into the modest one-roomed apartment in the Nofei Hasharon Retirement Center in Netanya, I was surprised and delighted to be greeted by a colorful chorus of orchids on the table in the center of the room, setting the tone to the room. The bright daylight that streamed into the room through the large windows sent spotlights to the photos, paintings and awards that adorned the two walls, and as I bent to greet and introduce myself, I felt a heightened sense of excitement and curiosity to meet and get to know Mrs. Ruth Reuven.
I had come to find out more about this remarkable lady who, at the age of 99 (bis 120) was still knitting sweaters for nursery school children; teaching and tutoring pensioners in English; teaching a monthly Tanach group as well as a monthly "story time" activity for the residents. But that is not all. Ruth still collects clothing and household goods for the ESRA secondhand shop, which are picked up from her room from time to time by a volunteer.
I sat down across from Ruth, at her narrow kitchen table, glancing briefly around the room, at the walls and the table. I noted the papers and photos she had prepared for me to look at and that her round, lively eyes were looking straight into mine. In those first few moments of being in her space, I felt that I had received my introduction to Ruth. In choosing to create a living space that projects beauty, wisdom, achievement, love and refinement, she communicates genuine warmth and openness. In choosing to create a garden of orchids in her limited space, she delivers a strong message of optimism and unwillingness to allow the limitations of space, age and circumstance to restrict her spirit.
The time I have since spent with Ruth has served only to reinforce and greatly enhance those initial impressions.
The youngest of eight siblings, Ruth Feldman was born in Leeds, England, in 1912 to traditional and strongly Zionist parents of Lithuanian origin who inculcated in their children the importance of doing, at least, one 'mitzvah' a day. Ruth recalls that as a young child she used to knock on the neighbors' doors to ask if they had a mitzvah for her that day. Thus the values of "giving and doing good" as well as her passion for Zionism were engraved on her soul as a small child. At the age of 18 Ruth was accepted to study at the University of Leeds and insisted on learning Hebrew. However, after a year of study, her family's financial situation obliged her to leave university and go to work at the local Hebrew school (cheder). Even after the war and her husband's return from wartime captivity, Ruth continued to be the breadwinner. Nonetheless, she persevered and returned to complete her studies, obtaining her degree at the age of 37.
In 1933 she married Solly Reuven, a podiatrist and a very artistically talented man. WW2 broke out and Solly enlisted. At first he fought in North Africa but shortly after the Japanese joined the war he was sent to the Far East, was captured and became a prisoner of war in Java for three and half years. Conditions were so difficult that most POWs did not survive. Solly himself was in such poor physical and emotional condition on his release that he was hospitalized in a military hospital for another two years. During all this time Ruth, who was left to look after their five–year-old daughter and her mother, had no idea what had happened to her husband. She had received only one letter – 18 months after it had been written, and was told by authorities to expect the worst. Nevertheless, she firmly believed that he would survive. Why? .."Because he promised me. He promised that he would return to me and our little girl," says Ruth, eyes glistening as she pulls out that single letter she received and reads those lines of love that she must have read thousands of times over. When he eventually returned in November 1945, Solly was a broken man, physically and emotionally, and unable to work.
Before the war years, England accepted some 12,000 children in the Kindertransport. Ruth, aged 28, took into her small home three of those children, a 17-year-old girl and her two brothers, 14 and 7 years old respectively, whom she brought up along with her daughter. As Ruth recounted and fleetingly touched on the responsibilities and challenges of the years that followed - the war years, the slow rehabilitation of a much loved spouse, the pain of losing one of the adopted sons who came to Israel in 1948 as a volunteer in Machal and was killed in action… I felt not only compassion but also a growing admiration and wonder at the strength, faith, love and giving that came through her words. I was reminded of a saying attributed to Sir Winston Churchill: "We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give."
The Reuvens came to live in Israel in 1969 when they were both 57 years old. Starting out in Ashdod, they moved a couple of times until they finally made Netanya their permanent home. Ruth's eyes fill with tears as she talks of her husband's sudden and unexpected death in 1981. "I was sure I wouldn't survive", she says, "yet here I am, 30 years later."
A year ago Ruth was invited to the Netanya College to talk to the social science students, an address that was visually documented. During the discussion Ruth was asked what can give meaning to an elderly person's life. Unequivocally she answered, "to live not only for yourself but also for others." The many awards hanging on the wall in her room attest to the way Ruth continued to give meaning to her life. These and more in a drawer form a beautiful collage of volunteer effort and involvement in the community, a reaching out to help where needed.
The influx of Russian immigrants in 1990 created an acute need for teaching Hebrew. A seasoned Hebrew teacher, Ruth opened a Hebrew learning center in her home in which she taught new immigrants Hebrew twice a week in the evening for two hours for free. This she did for five years. For this devoted effort, the Lions Club elected her "Woman of the Year" in 1996.
In 1994 the Netanya Municipality sought volunteers to teach English at the Pensioners Club. Ruth took on the task – a project in which she is involved to this very day. For this and other contributions to the welfare of society she was elected as "Honorary Citizen of Netanya" in 2001.
Following an episode of illness, Ruth moved to the Nofei Hasharon Retirement Home some six years ago from where she has continued her involvement in her projects to this day. She has been able to do this because of the support and assistance she receives from the management. Anat Chen, the cultural organizer, says that it is Nofei Hasharon's policy is to be connected to and involved in the community wherever they can. However, it is more than that. One cannot but be impressed and moved by the understanding and respect that Anat has for Ruth and for Ruth's need to continue to give of herself. Thus, three years ago, when the Pensioners' English group found themselves without a venue, Anat made a room and regular time available for them to continue their weekly English lesson.
Ruth became involved in ESRA many years ago, knitting jerseys for children in "Kat-Gan" nursery school and other nursery schools in Netanya. In Nofei Hasharon she joined the ongoing knitting group established by the late Cecilia Kriss as a joint ESRA project. Her knitting needles are never far from her.
Ruth's activities are by no means confined to those above. She continues to belong to an English literary group which was established by her friend Hannah Gel. Ruth was a member from its start 28 years ago. The group meets monthly, and for this group Ruth translates the stories from Yiddish and Hebrew classics into English for discussion; Ruth teaches Tanach once a month to the residents of Nofei Hasharon, and prepares the Shabbat candles for the women on Fridays. Most amazingly, Ruth continues to collect clothing and household goods for the ESRA shop. At her request, the attached notice has been posted on the main notice board. Looking around the room, I asked her, incredulously, "Ruth where do you have place for parcels of goods?" "If I could find place for the Kinder, I should not find place for a few parcels?" Ruth's answer typifies her attitude to life: there is always room for another mitzvah.
A smiling quiet filled the room and I turned my attention to the photos and documents lying on the table. Almost at once Ruth placed in front of me a cutting from the Netanya newspaper, "60-plus" written by Nechama Mazor showing Ruth holding a beautiful wood carving of the head and shoulders of Dr Chaim Weitzmann. Ruth proceeded to tell me the story of the carving. It was carved by her husband during the three and half years that he was held as a POW, out of a piece of heavy Indonesian wood that he had found, using a penknife, (both of which he had had to keep hidden in a hole in the ground). Solly copied the picture of Dr Weizmann from a newspaper cutting that Ruth had given him just before he left to join the war, saying,"take this, maybe he will look after you." When he handed the wood carving to her, on his return, he said that he had done it for her because he knew how much it would please her. I remarked on her husband's talent. She nodded and her head turned towards the several watercolor paintings that hung on the wall next to her bed, paintings whose themes and colors reflect tranquility, stability and harmony. With great pride and emotion Ruth affirmed her husband's talents, adding, "Oh, how he loved me. He lived his life for me." With matter of fact pragmatism Ruth went on to talk about the desire she had to find a suitable abode for this very treasured artifact, a place that would recognize its historical value. This came about as a result of a tour that Anat had organized for the residents of Nofei Hasharon to the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, shortly before Ruth's 98th birthday. Ruth had approached the director of the visitors' center and had told her about the statue and its story. The latter expressed great excitement at Ruth's offer to donate the statue to the museum. A short time later, in a small documented ceremony at the Weizmann Archives adjacent to the Weizmann House, Ruth parted from her wood carving, and gave it, together with the documented story, a postcard of Chaim Weizmann and a photo of her husband in British uniform into the hands of the Director of the Archives.
Having barely recovered from the impact of this 'gift', I saw that Ruth was holding an old postcard with a picture of Theodor Herzl with the inscription, "אם חפצים אתם אין זו אגדה" also in German and French, in her hand.
This was yet another treasured object. She had found it in her parents' album. It was very old. In the late 19th Century, signed postcards of famous Zionists leaders were sold to raise money for the Zionist cause. This postcard had an extra special meaning to Ruth because her brother, five years older than her, was named Theodor Herzl. For some time she had wanted to donate this postcard to an appropriate institute, but her efforts and those of the Home's staff had not yet been successful, and she wondered whether I could help. I could see that she was very troubled and told her that I was willing to enquire at Beit Hatfutsot, Museum of the Jewish People, where I am a volunteer. I indeed took the postcard to the museum. To my great joy and Ruth's delight, Zippi Rosenne, the director of the museum's visual documentation center was very happy to receive it, and there and then numbered it and prepared a letter of thanks to Ruth, emphasizing her contribution to the understanding and knowledge of life in the Diaspora Jewish Communities.
This is but a glimpse of Ruth Reuven, a woman whose life has been driven, on the one hand, by Jewish values of love and respect for her fellow man and her consequent need to give of herself and make a difference; and on the other hand, by her thirst for learning, teaching and commitment to Jewish life and the Zionist State.
I am inspired by Ruth's wisdom, humility, her ability to rise above the troubles, remain optimistic, positive and vital. I am inspired by her ongoing quest for learning, for her humor and warmth, her ability to give of herself and of her possessions.
Ruth Reuven is a beautiful person with a big heart, and I feel grateful that being part of the ESRA family has afforded me the opportunity of meeting and getting to know her. I feel privileged to have become Ruth's friend.
Ruth Reuven’s story is now on Beit Hatfutsot website, please review:
In addition Ruth's great-granddaughter prepared a short film about her for the occasion of her 100th birthday. Here is the link to the youtube