February 27, 2013
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
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.