April 19, 2019

Ruth Nussbaum, Zionist, activist and famous rebbetzin dies at 98

Ruth Nussbaum, an eyewitness and sometime participant in some of the most momentous events in Jewish history over the past century, died Tuesday, April 27, in her Sherman Oaks home as a result of congestive heart failure and complications of pneumonia. She was 98.

Services will be held at 10 a.m., Thursday, April 29, at Temple Israel of Hollywood in the sanctuary named for her and her husband, the late Rabbi Max Nussbaum, followed by interment at Hillside Memorial Park. The public is welcome.

Displaying amazing vitality and total memory recall until the final hours of her life, Ruth Nussbaum was described by Rabbi John Rosove of Temple Israel as “perhaps the most remarkable person I have ever known. She was a historical figure and she was our conscience.”

Nussbaum was born Ruth Offenstadt into a prosperous and assimilated Jewish family in Berlin and later studied languages, philosophy and art at universities in Berlin and Geneva.

After a brief first marriage ended in divorce, and witnessing the growing Nazi persecution of Jews, Ruth and her baby daughter, Hannah, moved to Amsterdam in 1937. Among their neighbors was the Frank family, whose daughter, Anne Frank, frequently came by to play with Hannah, according to Ruth’s grandson, Gabriel Nussbaum.

The same year, Ruth became acquainted with a rising young Reform rabbi from Berlin, Max Nussbaum, who visited Amsterdam frequently. Ruth and Max were married by a judge in Amsterdam on July 7, 1938, and then again a week later in a religious ceremony in Berlin by the distinguished leader of Progressive Judaism, Rabbi Leo Baeck.

In late 1940, with the war raging in Europe, the young Nussbaum family managed to get visas to enter the United States. The rabbi obtained his first position at a congregation in Muskogee, Okla., where Ruth gave birth to son Jeremy.

Rabbi Nussbaum was offered the pulpit at Temple Israel of Hollywood in 1942, and served for 32 years, until his death in 1974.

His wife quickly found her métier in the booming metropolis. “She was beautiful, elegant, highly intelligent, very hospitable, and Max relied on her emotionally and intellectually,” Rosove observed. “She was the quintessential rebbetzin in the best sense of the word.”

The good-looking Nussbaum couple socialized easily and equally with Hollywood celebrities, visiting Israeli leaders, and the intellectual elite of the German exile community in Los Angeles.

But they invested much of their time and energy in their two great passions, Zionism and the American civil rights movement.

In general, the Reform movement came late to its support of Zionism, and Ruth was instrumental in the creation of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA), swaying many delegates at a national Reform convention with an impassioned speech.