The first lady of the Jewish people

A tribute to former Hadassah and JNF president Ruth Popkin.

RUTH POPKIN (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
I don’t know if heaven is ready for Ruth Popkin. The former president of the Hadassah Women’s Zionist Organization and the Jewish National Fund passed away this week. At 101, there were no words about failing health or long illness, only words of impact... doing, making things happen, inspiring people, and caring about Israel and the world. That is the story of Ruth Popkin.
If heaven is not ready for a person who will give her opinions, whether asked or not, for someone who will call you “gorgeous” one moment, and the next pinch your belly and say, “I think you gained too many pounds,” for a person who looked into a young leader’s eyes when they were going to be introduced to the prime minister and said, “Don’t be nervous; he is a nice guy,” then they better prepare themselves. These are just some of the stories and attributes of Ruth Popkin. The role-modeling and guidance she gave to so many will inspire generations to come. She was a mentor to many, but more important... she was my friend.
Ruth’s Jewish involvement started when she went to a Hadassah meeting in Long Island, New York, as a newlywed.
She was invited by a friend and she said, “It seems like an interesting group of people doing good work.” Now, that was a time when women stayed at home and were part of afternoon clubs, but most did not strive to become leaders. When Ruth attended that first Hadassah meeting, she was not familiar with Israel, then Palestine, and our striving for a homeland by our people. She had been raised in a very secular environment and it was a new introduction to Judaism for her. She stayed with it, and within a year, she was the president of the Long Island Chapter of Hadassah.
For Ruth Popkin, it became a vocation, a time for her to learn and change, to build and create, and to help thousands of others grow and connect to Israel.
Ruth Popkin was truly the first lady of the Jewish people.
She grew up in Brooklyn and was the second of three daughters of immigrant parents. She attended public schools, helped out in her father’s stationery store and graduated from James Madison High School. She then worked and studied at the same time by taking night classes in philosophy at Brooklyn College, and worked during the day as an assistant buyer of coats and suits at Stern’s Department Store.
In 1939, she married Morris Popkin, a businessman. They had three children. Morris passed away in 1979.
Ruth always wanted to accomplish something positive. She was there for the birth of the State of Israel and understood that this was a path, a direction, a focus and a passion that she must take. She followed the vision as she led two organizations as their national president, Hadassah and the Jewish National Fund.
From a timid housewife, Ruth Popkin became a force unto the Jewish world.
I remember meeting her many years before coming to Jewish National Fund and wondering, who is that women who would never stop correcting someone, challenging the system, pushing to make things happen and always asking at the end of every meeting, “What are our action points?” The first week after I became chief executive officer of Jewish National Fund, I was going to attend a dinner honoring Ronald Lauder, our new president. Ruth was sitting with me ahead of time and giving me the history of JNF and my marching orders, well, according to Ruth, that is.
As we walked out the door to attend the dinner, I turned to Ruth and said, “You are my first date here in New York.” She looked me in the eyes and said, “You are a lucky man!” That was Ruth... quick wit! The most amazing thing happened at the dinner. Lauder gave a speech I thought was very good. He came down from the podium, and the first person he approached, wanting to know how it went and what she thought, was Ruth Popkin.
She looked into his eyes, grabbed his shoulder and said, “Not bad, need to improve, though.” That was Ruth Popkin. A compliment with mentoring.
At our JNF board meetings held every month, Popkin always participated. Every meeting begins with the acceptance of our Minutes from our last meeting. All eyes always turned to Popkin because we knew she read every word and had a few corrections. That was Ruth Popkin.
If you did not speak loud enough, clear enough, or if you were just talking without making a point, Ruth informed you.
When people would give their opinions, Popkin would raise her hand and say, “That is very nice, now do you have any action points, or were you just talking?” Popkin always wanted to make things happen.
I posted on my Facebook page the passing of Ruth Popkin.
It was out of respect and love. I discovered over 100 comments were immediately posted. People I did not even know were friends of mine were touched by Ruth Popkin. They shared memories... how she was a mentor to a Young Judaea leader 40 years ago, or a meeting they attended with her in Israel and advice they received. Others were inspired by her words during a speech or just by meeting her. It was a little surprising to see how many people she had touched. Then again, it wasn’t.
I don’t know if heaven is ready; not to worry though, Ruth will get you organized.
There are no studies that can guide our people more than just to follow Ruth’s advice. Be a change agent of the Jewish world and stand up and lead. That is what we need... more Ruth Popkins.
Ruth, I will miss your words, “Hello, gorgeous,” and the pinch on my belly saying, “You gained a few pounds.” I will miss the single malt scotch I keep in my closet, to always share a drink with you.
Ruth, I will keep the bottle to toast you with others you have mentored. You will always hold a special place within our hearts.
On behalf of our president, Jeffrey Levine, our chairman, Ronald Lauder, and the entire Jewish National Fund family, I wish to express our deepest sympathy and condolences to all the family, Louise, Michael, Lisa and the grandchildren.
The writer is chief executive officer of the Jewish National Fund.