by Nina Samuels
“My voice is too hoarse.”
“I can’t walk steps anymore.”
“I can’t hear on the phone.”
“I’ll ask my daughter for a ride, if she’s not out of town.”
“Ruthie is only five, but she can read a full verse!”
“Thank you so much for inviting me!”
The responses to the invitation ranged from initial hesitancy to delight. All were surprised — why would someone from the synagogue be asking them? Some of those invited had been engaged in congregational life years earlier, some were marginally involved; one was barely five years old and a preschool graduate. What did they have in common? Simply this: They all were named Ruth.
In 2007 Adath Jeshurun Congregation in Minnetonka, Minnesota embarked on a new plan for its annual Tikkun Leil Shavuot study evening. This year, instead of its usual practice of engaging scholars on a pressing issue, the congregation would invite all women in the congregation whose name was Ruth to come together to be honored for their link to the biblical Ruth, whose powerful story is celebrated on Shavuot. Each would read a portion of the Book of Ruth on the first night of the holiday. Ten Ruths agreed to participate, ranging from five to over 90 years old.
The significance of the congregation’s decision would unfold on many levels. From the start, there was a sweetness to the plan that was difficult to put into words but was sensed by virtually everyone who heard about it. Of course it would bring new people into the annual Tikkun Leil Shavuot. Each year the congregation is challenged to draw in more than just the usual suspects – that is, the people already engaged in synagogue life and serious ongoing Jewish learners. What better way to reach more deeply and broadly into the congregation than to invite personally and honor a diverse spectrum of congregants, who would bring their families as well? Congregants are waiting to be asked.
On another level, it was an opportunity to illustrate concretely the powerful link of the Jewish people to its ancestors. What better way to honor the biblical Ruth, and all that her story stands for, than to bring together women whose loving parents continued to name their daughters Ruth thousands of years later?
As part of the same evening, the congregation decided to honor and learn from the people in its midst who are the spiritual descendants of Ruth – people who had chosen to become Jewish as adults. In addition to relating their personal journeys to Judaism, a panel of converts would comment on their experiences in and with the Jewish community.
After services, Rabbi Harold Kravitz introduced the evening with study of the significance of the Book of Ruth, focusing on its values of loyalty and lovingkindness. The book was divided between the 10 Ruths, each of whom, having carefully practiced her assigned verses, read with dignity and kavanah, intention. Ruth Brin, a liturgical poet and longtime member of the congregation, also read from her own poetry, related thematically to the holiday. Finally the panel members told their stories. There was much to learn from their unique perspectives, about what had been most difficult and what most rewarding; what welcoming and what off-putting; what continued to be difficult or disturbing; what the community might do better.
Bringing together the Ruths of Adath Jeshurun presented an opportunity to probe more deeply and push the boundaries of how the congregation sees itself as a community. Adath Jeshurun is a large suburban congregation of typical constituency groups — smaller groupings of people with obvious commonalities, such as preschool parents, singles, empty nesters, Shabbat regulars, and so on. Congregants tend to seek out people with whom they have things in common and to think of them as “people like us.” The Ruths Reading Ruth evening challenged the congregation to experience and think in a new way about who is really “like us.” If congregants came together around as arbitrary a commonality as the names their parents chose for them, what else could they find in common? What might be the reward? From the delight and pride expressed, it was significant. What emerged was a deeply rich moment in congregational time.
Who is truly like us? To deepen the horizontal and vertical relational bonds of klal Yisrael, the whole Jewish people, congregations and communities must challenge themselves to reach beyond the obvious constituency groups. Adath Jeshurun’s biblical namesakes and spiritual descendants of Ruth mirrored the history, commonality, and diversity of the congregation. They showed the power of a name to tie congregants to their religious and ethical roots, as well as to the diverse community of people around them.
Thank you to the Ruths who eagerly and graciously participated: Ruth Brand, Ruth Brin, Ruth Elias, Ruthie Goldenberg, Ruth Hollischer, Ruth King-Smith, Ruth Krause, Ruth Kronick, Ruth Levine, and Ruth Seltz. And to their parents, who lovingly named them Ruth.