A couple of weeks ago a large crowd gathered at Kibbutz Kissufim for the funeral of Ruth Paz, a founder and three times kibbutz secretary. Her life story personified the twentieth-century Jewish condition. Ruth was born in 1930 in Vienna. At the age of eight she was on the famous Kindertransport that saved 1,500 children from the Nazis by bringing them to Britain and placing them in the care of foster parents. In the middle of World War II she was miraculously reunited with her parents, and the family made its way to the United States where she grew up.
In 1950, along with her new husband Yehudah, Ruth was among the founders of Kibbutz Kissufim. Their house literally faces Gaza, and in that sense she built her home and raised her family in the forward trenches of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet, if Ruth saw in her geography a challenge, she understood it through a lens of peacemaking. She dedicated herself to the work of reconciliation and development. In addition to her activism in the Palestinian-Israeli context, Ruth did pioneering work on bridging gaps between kibbutzim and what we used to call “development towns.” For the last dozen years she served in NISPED, the Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development, an organization that brings Jews and Arabs together to develop the Negev for the good of all. She was involved with this work quite literally until the day she died.
Ruth was strong-minded, willful and, in her own way, charismatic. As demanding of herself as she was of others, her principles were her guide. In their pursuit she could be unbending. While the Paz home on Kibbutz Kissufim illustrates the modesty in which she and Yehudah lived, she was at the same time a person of enormous warmth and empathy.
And Ruth Paz was so very American. It wasn’t just that she and Yehudah spoke together in American-accented English. If Ruth was an ember saved from the fire of the Shoah by freakish good luck, she was also indelibly shaped by her eight years growing up in America. While others among her contemporaries eventually turned away from activism toward more private pursuits, she never did. Ruth was a dyed-in-the-wool social democrat and an activist until the end.
The life of Ruth Paz tells us something important about the role American aliyah has played in shaping this country. To be sure, we Americanim make up only 1-2% of the Jewish population of Israel. But our footprint in Israeli life suggests disproportionate impact. We gave Israel a Prime Minister (Golda Meir), a Defense Minister (Moshe Arens), and a gaggle of members of Knesset, Supreme Court justices and cultural leaders. Our accent crops up among the nation’s chief economists, its academics, its hi-tech wizards, its pioneers of third-sector NGO activism.
Yet the popular image of American aliyah seems quite different. The mad verbosity of the late Meir Kahane, the savagery of Baruch Goldstein—butcher of Hebron—and now the insane brutality of Jewish terrorist Jack Teitel projected this accent into the public’s awareness in a truly appalling way. [True story – Several years ago my brother Danny met with his boss who expressed surprise that he is of American origin. For some reason he thought Danny was from New Zealand. “I don’t know. You just seem so sane. Not like those crazies on the West Bank.”] Of course, only a small minority of American Jewish olim fit the stereotype. And to be fair, for most of us it is an annoyance rather than a practical impediment to success. We cannot compare our situation to those groups of Israelis—Ethiopian and Russian olim, Arabs, Haredim, gays and others—who wrestle with negative prejudgments based on ethnicity or way of life.
The life of Ruth Paz conveys a message of survival, perseverance and pioneering. Her personal example was, at the very least, a correction to those who draw facile conclusions about American olim in Israel. Her contributions helped shape much that is right about this country, and she did it far from the light of media coverage and the shallow culture of celebrity. To me she was one of those Haim Nachman Bialik had in mind when he wrote:
But your life! That was your prophecy, and your very being was your glory.
You are the faithful guardians of the image of God in the world!
And as God lives, not a flutter of our eyelids shall be lost, not the slightest motion of your spirit ever perish!
Till the final generation, when the last song of the mighty Psalmists is ended, and the name and lore of ancient sages be utterly forgotten,
these still shall live, revealed anew in the light that gleams in the eyes and shines on the human face.