Remembering Ruby and Hart Campbell
The most up-to-date statistics released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in October 2018, revealed that drunk drivers killed almost 11,000 people in 2017, and drunk driving still remains the leading cause of death on the nation’s roads. But these numbers, no matter how shocking, don’t begin to allow us to comprehend the names, hopes and dreams of the lives cut short by an alcohol-impaired driver. They’re just statistics.
Two of those so-called “statistics” were cut down in their prime following a horrific accident three months ago. They were from our Los Angeles Jewish community, and they had barely begun their lives.
Seventeen-year-old Ruby Campbell and her 14-year-old brother, Hart, were in the back seat of their parents Gail Lerner and Colin Campbell’s car in the Morongo Valley when they were struck by a drunk driver at around 10:30 p.m. on June 12. Both of the children died shortly after.
Lerner and Campbell, both 49, were also injured in the crash. Lerner is a longtime writer and executive producer for the ABC series “Black-ish” and Campbell is a writer and director. He also teaches at Chapman University and Cal Poly Pomona. They are members of the IKAR community.
Following the accident, the couple was flooded with support. Hundreds turned out to Ruby and Hart’s funerals and shivah services, and IKAR dug deep to help Lerner and Campbell find a way to navigate through their deep well of grief and grapple with every parent’s worst nightmare.
Part of that work included creating a warm, welcoming space that allowed the couple to honor Ruby and Hart’s memories. Speaking with the Journal by phone, Lerner said, “We felt really, really grateful and just sort of astonished by the scope of the emotional and physical support [from IKAR]. And I think first and foremost we felt exceptionally taken care of by our rabbis — in particular Rabbi [Sharon] Brous, Rabbi [Ronit] Tsadok and Rabbi [Keilah] Lebell. They were really just there for us every step, as was [IKAR CEO] Melissa Balaban.”
Hundreds of people packed Shalhevet High’s gymnasium for the funerals on June 17, where Brous told Lerner and Campbell, “The very best that we can do is sit with you in the darkness and remind you again and again with our love that you are not alone as you walk through the valley of the shadow of death. We are here today because two beautiful, decent, loving, thriving human beings have been taken from the world too soon, and we need to take these cries of agony and build a sacred container to help hold our memories of Ruby and Hart.”
“It was overwhelming to see that much love for us,” Lerner said. Campbell added, “It was beautiful and very meaningful to have this enormous community right there by our side.”
Lerner said her two sisters, who flew in from the East Coast, “just couldn’t believe the deeply personal, nuanced compassion of our rabbis and how spiritual the shivahs were. “But it’s not surprising to us,” she said. “It’s why we chose IKAR. We felt the same thing at our kids’ bar and bat mitzvahs.”
Lerner and Campbell were members of IKAR before it even existed. Thirteen years ago, they attended a service at Roxbury Park as IKAR was being established. “I’m not Jewish but we knew we wanted to raise our kids Jewish,” Campbell said. “It was very important to me we find a temple where the rabbi spoke in a deep and meaningful way about life.”
The couple credits Dana Reinhardt and her husband, Daniel Sokatch of the New Israel Fund, for introducing them to Brous at that Roxbury Park meeting. Campbell recalled: “I remember thinking, ‘I like this rabbi, she’s got something to say. I’ll listen to her.’ ”
Thirteen years later, Lerner and Campbell are still moved by Brous’ words and feel embraced by the IKAR community. Those who wish to make donations in Ruby and Hart’s memory to IKAR or the Trevor Project can do so online at ikar-la.org/donate and thetrevorproject.org/donate/fundraise.
Below are Gail and Colin’s eulogies for Ruby and Hart as well as the euology by Rabbi Sharon Brous.
Eulogy for Ruby and Hart Campbell by their mother, Gail Lerner
My children died on Thursday. Both of them. In an instant. Ruby first, in the same hospital where Colin and were also being examined. Hart, meanwhile, had been airlifted to a pediatric intensive care unit 45 minutes away. Mercifully, the doctors went against their better judgment: They looked past our broken ribs and cracked sternums and they discharged us anyway, so we could rush to him, only to be told that his injuries, too, were unsurvivable. Like his sister, he’d never regained consciousness after the other car hit us. They were keeping him alive on a ventilator so we could kiss his forehead and hand, and then he was gone, too. And improbably, in that moment, a line from Shakespeare popped into my head.
As the character MacDuff says in the play “Macbeth” when he discovers that his children have been murdered, he cries out not in sorrow but in disbelief. “What? All my pretty chickens, at one fell swoop?”
I’ve always been moved by that passage. Even long before I had children. In a play full of much more famous speeches, the pure astonishment he feels at the moment of seeing his children dead always jumped out at me. How could it be? All his pretty chickens? In one fell swoop? It was sad and elegant, and it made a fictional scene feel so real.
Now that fictional scene is my reality. Now it’s my pretty chickens who’ve been taken from me in one fell swoop, by a wicked murderer who didn’t use a knife but way too much liquor, and a speeding car that had no headlights on in the dead of night.
For the past three horrible days, I’ve spent a lot of time imagining this moment we’re in right now: trying to prepare myself for the day when we actually do this: we put my babies in the ground. And I’ve been reading the hundreds of beautiful emails that have been pouring into my inbox. I’ve been telling myself that seeing all of you here, your loving faces radiating support, would be a comfort. But I was afraid that it wouldn’t be. And sure enough, my worry has come true. I look out at you all and feel envy. I envy you who have living children, who get to come home to kisses, watch way-too-long school plays, and mop up puke at impossibly early hours. And I envy you who have chosen not to have children. When you come back from a trip to Paris unfettered by children’s bedtimes, and having eaten in charming cafes, instead of being dragooned into eating spaghetti every night at the only Italian restaurant in Paris because your nine-year-old saw a whole duck hanging in a window and became terrified of French food. This actually happened to us. After three nights of mediocre pasta, the impossibly chic waitress leaned in to me and whispered very gently, “Ah, you know zis ees not French food?” Now, without my pretty chickens I have no noses to wipe, and the beauty of traveling somewhere new and magnificent without children, will always come with a searing reminder that Hart and Ruby aren’t with us, clamoring for souvenirs and used books they’ll never read.
But that’s it, I guess. That’s my life now. I know there will, at some point, be good moments to go alongside the bad, that I’ll be able to listen to the stories of my friends whose children are the same age as mine would be without wanting to throw up, but I also know that I’ll never imitate the excited waddle of the dachshund Hart and I once saw, because no one else on this earth would know what that meant or why it was so funny, or hear Ruby’s soft call of “Mama” from behind her closed door, which was exquisite because it was so soft and sweet, a reminder of her toddler-hood, even though I knew she was calling to me because she wanted something but, because she was a teenager, was too lazy to get out of bed. I want those things again. And I want to go to my old world, where I didn’t envy you all: I could just go back to loving and admiring and enjoying you, all your beautiful faces who have come here to hold me and Colin up while the ground keeps giving out. It’s going to be tough being my friend for a while, while this avalanche of emotions is churning inside me. But please stick with me. I want to come back to that world. It’ll never be the same again without my chickens, but you guys are my connection to that ‘before’ time, and I’m realizing now that I was wrong. I don’t just envy you. I also love you. And in this moment of inescapable darkness, I’m so glad you’re here.
Eulogy for Ruby and Hart Campbell by their father, Colin Campbell
I want to talk to you about love. About the incredible love and generosity Ruby and Hart carried inside them and shared with everyone that was lucky enough to enter their world. And especially about the powerful love they felt for each other.
They had special, mysterious intuitive bond. I remember two years ago they played a guessing game with their Aunt Betsy and Cousin Raffi. They split up into two teams, Betsy and Raffi versus Ruby and Hart. The idea was each team would be told a category and they had to shout out the first word that came to their mind, and they would get a point if they shouted the same word simultaneously. Hart and Ruby had never played the game before, but Betsy and Raffi had played many times and were very good at it and eager to win. But Ruby and Hart destroyed them. They shouted out the same word almost every time. It was so extraordinary, I remember asking them – how did they do that?! And Ruby replied, “oh it was easy, instead of shouting the first word I thought of, I just shouted out the first word Hart would have thought of.”
Sometimes, when I was helping Hart with his Math homework, and I had to help him a lot, I would lose patience with him and he would shout “what good is math anyway, I’ll never use it, it’s a waste of time” and that would push my buttons and I’d shout back, and then Ruby would calmly step up and tap me on the shoulder and say, “I got this dad” and she would shoo me out of the room and take over teaching Hart Math, and she would do such a better job of it.
But then our Ruby entered a dark period in her life. She suffered terribly from depression and anxiety and OCD and suicidality. And when she was hospitalized and had to be away from home for two months, we were all devastated. Hart most of all. Ruby felt hopeless and lost interest in almost everything. To keep herself distracted from her pain she would obsessively read Manga and watch Anime shows, and she and Hart bonded over them. They would read Deathnote together and watch Attack on Titan and Voltron and discuss Hitalia fan fiction and eagerly share anime memes. And they both excitedly went to Anime Expo together. It helped pull Ruby out of her depression and sparked her interest in art and animation. Which led to a whole new beautiful chapter in Ruby’s life. We were so happy they were able to connect even in the darkest of times. But later, I asked Hart a question about an anime show and he confessed that he didn’t actually like Anime – he never really had. He just pretended so he could be close to Ruby and spend time with her. He was so smart.
Later, when Ruby emerged from her struggles – and she did emerge, she emerged magnificently – Hart developed a passion for hip hop music and he desperately wanted to share his enthusiasm for the latest Little Skies or Ski Mask the Slump God or Juice World track that just dropped. But I would max out at three songs and tell him, “dude it’s eight o’clock in the morning this is too tough for me,” but Ruby always wanted to hear them. They would each share an earbud on her headphones so they could listen together as they watched a rap video on Hart’s phone, their little heads pressed together. But she didn’t actually like hip hop. She liked Queen and Billie Eilish and Madonna. She had zero rap songs on her playlist. But she never told him that. She pretended so she could be close to him.
The only music they both truly loved was the soundtrack to Hamilton, which they memorized and played non-stop for a full year, singing together at full volume during every single car ride.
And when Ruby discovered drawing and painting, he was her biggest fan. He loved every single thing she drew. He would greet every new drawing or watercolor or painting with “oh my God, that’s amazing Ruby,” and he mean it.
When Ruby came out and embraced her butch plaid-wearing lesbian bad-ass self, Hart became a fierce advocate and ally for the LGBTQ. He would call out his friends for using the “f” word and he would call out the casual homophobia and heteronormative bias in movies and tv with incredible sophistication and understanding. And he was fiercely loyal to his haircutter as she transitioned from Seth to Gwen. Hart would casually comment to me – oh did you notice Seth wore a skirt and sandals? Hey, did you see Seth had on a full dress today with earrings, oh just so you know dad, her name is Gwen now – and Hart always, always got her pronoun right. Hair was very important to Hart and he went often to get it cut and shaped just right, short on the sides, and back, but long on the top so it would poof to maximum effect. But if Gwen wasn’t available that week, he’d wait for her. Unless it was an extreme hair emergency, because this is his hair we’re talking about, after all.
I also want to talk about their love for their friends. And how they each found the perfect circle of people to share their lives with.
In Hart’s journey to middle school, he had to leave behind his incredible close-knit gang of goofballs from The Hollywood Schoolhouse and go by himself to Campbell Hall. He was vulnerable and struggling and scared to be himself, but then he found this wonderful strange group of kids who called themselves Mouse Screaming. And at first, he wasn’t sure if he was a full-fledged member or just on the periphery – he’s always been very sophisticated in his analysis of group dynamics. But then one day he realized he lived at the very heart of the group and that he was beloved by all of them, and by an even bigger circle of friends beyond Mouse Screaming at Campbell Hall. And that close circle of HSH friends never went away – he still regularly got together with them, too. Hart had too many friends.
Because of Ruby’s struggles with depression she had to move from school to school to school, before she finally landed at Fusion Academy and truly flourished. And while it was hard to maintain friendships – she did. She arrived at each new place and found a small tight circle of her people: the artsy weirdos. From HSH to Marlboro to Pilgrim to Fusion and Pasadena City College and her adult OCD group, she slowly kept adding new circles of friends till she built herself a real community of love. She discovered herself and embraced who she was with brand new confidence and power. And when her art professor at Pasadena City College assigned a life size self-portrait for the final, Ruby painted herself as a woman in a Renaissance outfit in men’s breeches, holding a two-handed sword looking like the sly gay warrior she was.
In the end, both of my children found their true selves thanks to their beautiful friends. Gail and I are so grateful to all of you for loving our children.
I don’t want to be up here talking to all of you, but I also don’t want to leave. I want to tell you Ruby and Hart stories for hours. And I want to hear all of your Ruby and Hart stories even if they make me cry, because I’ll cry, but that’s okay because they are tears of love. But I’ll tell you one last story in honor of Father’s Day – because we’ve ruined it for you. A few months ago, I told Gail a silly story from when I was seven and my parents took me to a town in France called La Napoule. It’s a beautiful old town on the rocky coast, but I hated it because when we got there I was so excited to swim in the pool. I assumed if they named the town after it, it must be the most amazing pool ever. And when my confused parents had to explain there was no pool I was too devastated to enjoy anything there. Gail later told the kids that story and apparently, they thought it was hilarious but they felt for ‘little me’ and said, “oh poor dad.” But it inspired them. And for weeks they would whisper excitedly in the other room, as, together, they designed my special Father’s Day gift – four hats with La Napoule Swim Club on them. We were so united in our love of imagination and ridiculousness, that they made hats commemorating our fun summers spent swimming in a non-existent pool. I love you, my sweet babies. I love you, and so many other people love you and will cherish the memories of your kind, sweet, funny, sly, clever, weird selves for as long as we live.
Eulogy for Ruby and Hart Campbell, by IKAR Rabbi Sharon Brous
This is a heartache beyond words. We’re shattered. And there’s an excruciating tug on the heart to make sense of it, but I’m sorry to tell you that there is no sense to it. It’s not supposed to be this way. It’s a beautiful Sunday. Ruby and Hart are supposed to be giving you their amazing Father’s Day surprise gift today, Colin, and helping Gail clean up from brunch.
Gail and Colin–I know it feels like the whole world has turned on its head—and it has. Number one among the things that are not supposed to be in this world: choosing burial plots for your children.
I would do anything in the world to make the pain go away, but I cannot. None of us can. The very best that we can do is sit with you in the darkness, and remind you again and again with our love that you are not alone as you walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death.
We are here today because two beautiful, decent, loving, thriving human being have been taken from the world too soon, and we need to take these cries of agony and build a sacred container to help hold our memories of Ruby and Hart.
Ruby and Hart were born three years and one day apart. So different from one another, and bonded so tightly to one another they could have been twins.
Ruby loved comic books and anime. Hart pretended he did too, just so he could be close to his big sister.
Hart, especially lately, loved rap. And Ruby pretended she did too, just so she could share ear buds with her little brother.
He was her fan. She was his cheerleader. They loved, more than anything, to be together. All four of them, actually. At an age when teens pull away from their parents, these two loved being with their parents. Laughing, travelling, talking together. The home was an oasis of laughter and love.
Ruby Arden Campbell was named after Gail’s grandmother Rae, and she had a fierce kindness, just like her great-grandmother. As Colin once described her:
My daughter, you are fierce and strange and wonderful, and I am so very proud of you. You amaze and inspire me every day with your kindness and humor and wisdom. You don’t get to choose your family, but if you could, I’d choose you.
From the time she was a tiny child, Ruby was proudly idiosyncratic. She did things her own way. Sometimes, it can be hard to be a teenage girl in LA—or anywhere—who does things her own way. Ruby felt the world deeply. Some of you know that sometimes she felt the world so deeply that it caused her immeasurable pain.
But over the past year or two, Ruby started to heal. You were such good parents to her, Gail and Colin. So patient and so generous with your love. She felt it, and she began to find happiness. She listened to Hamilton. She future oriented. She started to make art—and she was a natural. Art gave her an outlet. It put her in touch with the beauty inside her that needed to pour out to the world. It helped her tell her story.
It is said of the Angel Gabriel that he would reach into the depths and one by one, lift people out of their suffering.
Ruby was like that. As she healed, she became a person who was pulling other kids out of their deepest darkness. They looked up to her. She helped them believe in themselves. She had been through so much pain, and they knew they could trust her.
Hart Madison Campbell, whose Hebrew name was Chaim, meaning “life.”
Hart was the embodiment of love. We all felt it, as soon as we met him. Toho k’varo—his insides matched his outsides.
Hart started a new school this past year. Somehow, he was so surprised and so happy when other kids connected with him—which is the real surprise, because who didn’t want to be with Hart Campbell? He was loving and sweet, hilarious and empathic. (And he had amazing hair!) When Colin would go to pick him up from a party, his friends would sometimes hide him, so he could stay just a little bit longer. Which makes total sense. We all wanted Hart to stay longer.
Hart’s friends—I’m sure many of you are here—these are good people. People who keep eyes out for those who are hurt and lonely. People who take care of each other.
Hart’s emotional intelligence was off the charts. He understood, even as a small child, fear. Compassion. Anger. He held the family through the rough times—emotionally and physically. Even as he began to develop a rigorous 8th grader workout protocol, he still knew how to snuggle.
Hart once said that he believed the greatest impact he’d have on the world was by giving people laughter and hope, and that he did… every single day of his life.
When we met before his bar mitzvah last year, we talked about what inspired him, what he loved, and what he dreamt of. And we also talked about some of the challenges. I shared with him the story of Jacob wrestling with an angel. All night long they wrestled, but when the morning came, Jacob wouldn’t let the angel go until he received a blessing. Even when things were hard, I think Hart’s heart naturally oriented toward the blessing that would come in the morning. Maybe he was the blessing that came in the morning.
Last year, Ruby went on a school trip to the ocean. Two younger boys went out for a swim and got swept out too far. Ruby was standing on the shore with a teacher who wasn’t a great swimmer. (I’m not exactly sure how a teacher who wasn’t a great swimmer was put in charge of beach day.) The boys started to get scared as the current pulled them further and further from shore, and Ruby, without a moment’s hesitation, jumped in and swam all the way out to them.
“Listen to me!” she said. “You’re going to follow me back to shore. And if you’re too weak, I’ll carry you.”
The sheer force of her will brought those boys home. One she led, the other she literally carried on her back.
To Ruby and Hart’s friends, hold this story in your heart. You should never know of such a loss, at age 14 or 17. You should never know. But now you do. And in the days ahead, there will be times when you feel like you are being pulled out to sea by a current of grief far beyond your control. When that happens, you will need each other desperately. You will need to turn to one another and say, “Listen to me! Follow me back to shore. And if you’re too weak, I’ll carry you.” And like Ruby, you will save one another’s lives and help heal one another’s broken hearts.
Ruby’s story reminds me of a story in the Talmud. The great R’ Akiva is travelling on a boat that is shipwrecked. One of his colleagues sees the wreckage and is plunged into grief, devastated that his friend is gone.
But when he gets home, he finds R’ Akiva, sitting and teaching Torah. He’s shocked and relieved. “What happened?” he asks. “Who brought you up from the water?”
R’ Akiva said to him: “A plank from the ship floated by me, and I clung to it. Holding it tight, I bowed my head with each wave that came toward me, and let it pass over me knowing I’d once again be brought to the surface.” (Talmud Bavli, Yevamot 121a)
Gail and Colin, if you can, take a look around the room today. I know everything is shattered around you, but there are hundreds and hundreds of planks floating by you. Your family, your friends, your community. We are here for you to grab us and hold on. We promise you that we will do our best to help you catch your breath as each wave passes over you.
I want to close with some wisdom from Ruby, which, without knowing it, she may have written just for us. “What is the best thing you’ve ever learned?” we once asked her. Here’s what she said:
If you look at the sun RIGHT NOW you are technically looking back in time because it takes eight minutes for the light from the sun to hit the earth. If the sun disappeared we wouldn’t know for eight minutes. So live every minute like it’s one of your last eight.
I don’t know how she knew that. But she was right. Both that life is precarious and fragile and finite and, as Joan Didion said, everything changes in the instant.
And also that the reality is that there is a precious, limited time between when a light emits its final beams, and when we are still able to bask in its rays.
We are in that holy, liminal time now.
It is a time of shock and immense pain. It is also a time of great responsibility.
Ruby and Hart emitted so much light in their lives: the light of truth, of humor, of beauty, of love, love, love. Let us use this time to capture as much of their light, as many of the stories, as bountiful the memories as possible, so that they can continue to illuminate Gail and Colin’s lives, our schools and our communities, and the world, for the rest of our days.
Ruby and Hart, thank you for being exactly who you were in the world. Thank you for teaching us about compassion and love, for sharing your wisdom with grace and honestly.
We promise to hold your memory. We will say your names. We will lift up your stories and live in your light. We will remember you not only at yahrzeits and birthdays, but on regular old Tuesdays. We know that the everyday moments will in some ways be the hardest. We will not forget the everydays.
Your time in this world was too short, but your lives were surely a blessing.
May your souls now soar and your spirits shine with eternal light.
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