Hillel lost a treasured former colleague this week when Ruth Fredman Cernea succumbed to pancreatic cancer at age 74.
Ruth was ideally suited for her role as director of Hillel's publications and research: With a doctorate in anthropology, she had the credentials to earn the respect of Hillel directors and academics alike. And with her strong Jewish neshamah, soul, she could improve a dry academic treatise with love and warmth. It is no surprise that one of the books she edited was The Great Latke-Hamantash Debate, a volume that recounts the history of this epic struggle that started at the University of Chicago Hillel in 1946.
When the book was released in 2005 she told The New York Times: ''’The things that make this [debate] what it is are so deep in Jewish tradition -- being able to laugh at yourself, being able to laugh at the seriousness of life,' Ms. Cernea, an anthropologist, explained in an interview. 'In Jewish tradition, scholarship is serious, but it's also irreverent. Challenging the text, making fun of the text, is encouraged.’''
She is remembered fondly by her colleagues as a charming, urbane woman who brought light into a room. (Complete comments below.)
Yeshiva University President Richard M. Joel, the former president of Hillel, remembers: “Ruth was quintessential Hillel: deeply Jewish and deeply curious, celebrating each Jew each day. She thought the Hillel idea was majestic, and she contributed to it with her thoughtful scholarship, her goodness, and her exploration of Jewish life around the world. She was proper and caring, never failing to express joy and appreciation. She elevated all who had contact with her. She was a gift to us all.”
Ruth cut an impressive figure during her years at Hillel. She was the highest-ranking woman in Hillel at a time when the organization was just emerging from its domination by male rabbis. “When I moved to the National Office the entire national staff occupied half of the fourth floor of the B’nai B’rith building. I believe there were nine of us,” recalls Hillel Southeast Regional Liaison David Raphael. “Ruth was a beautiful, elegant woman who brought class, style, good cheer and good humor to Hillel. She was grounded in the academic world and her commitment to professionalism elevated us all.”
Brooklyn College Hillel Director Linda Askenazi adds: “I loved her femininity. She was an independent woman who was wonderfully dressed, usually with jewelry from some exotic place she had visited. To say ‘I loved her femininity’ may seem strange, but when I met her, 27 years ago, there was no other woman who I recall working at her level in the field. It was both comforting and inspirational.”
“What I think of first when I think of Ruth is her warmth,” says University of Illinois, Chicago Hillel Executive Director Marla Baker. “Ruth lived and modeled what we all talk about in Hillel: She was always happy to see you, always connected to what was important to you, always had something interesting and challenging to say about your work and to add to it.”
Ruth’s subject of specialization was the fascinating Jewish community of Myanmar (Burma) and her definitive book on the subject, Almost Englishmen: Baghdadi Jews in British Burma, was published in 2007. Her interest in the topic was more than academic: In her typical way, her scientific analysis was tempered by a great love and compassion for the Burmese Jewish community.
As publication director, Ruth was responsible for Hillel’s internal and external newsletters, compendia, and for the Guide to Jewish Life on Campus (JLOC), the definitive directory of all things Jewish on campus. Back then, compiling data for the book meant a painstaking process of sending printed forms to hundreds of Hillel professionals and advisors, waiting for them to be returned by mail, deciphering the scrawl (good penmanship has never been a requirement for Hillel employment), and hounding professionals until every campus was properly represented. Ruth undertook this task with love and meticulous care, and continued to edit the book after her retirement.
When I joined the staff of Hillel in 1998 it was my great honor to collaborate with her on the last printed edition of JLOC and to have my name connected with hers as co-editor. In fact, Ruth created the Hillel position that I now hold. It is impossible to fill her elegant shoes. She brought unique style, grace, intelligence, warmth and passion to this position. She was one of a kind.
Survivors include her husband of 22 years, Michael M. Cernea of Bethesda; three children from her first marriage, Jonathan Fredman of the District, Andrew Fredman of Coral Gables and Lauren Huot of Jakarta; two stepchildren, Andrei Cernea of Bethesda and Dana Cernea of Englewood, N.J.; a sister; a brother; and 11 grandchildren.
By Jeff Rubin
Associate Vice president for Communications
Washington Post Obituary
Washington Jewish Week Obituary
Ruth’s Colleagues Remember Her:
Ruth was a wonderful friend, an exacting scholar and a devoted professional. She understood that Jewish Faculty were a priority for Hillel and she valued the intellectual life.
Her thoughtfulness, refinement, and simple goodness will be missed by us all.
Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller
Executive Director, UCLA Hillel
I always felt a close connection to Ruth through her work in anthropology. I often recommend her book on the Passover seder. She was a deeply intelligent, thoughtful person. She loved Hillel and so valued and enjoyed her colleagues. May her memory be a blessing.
Rabbi Jeffrey Summit
Executive Director, Tufts Hillel
Ruth z”l as we all know and remember was a mensch whose great intellect and humanity was ever present. She was a friend, a teacher, colleague and mentor whose good advice and interest was always given with a smile. I last saw Ruth a couple of years ago and it was as if she never left Hillel and our conversation continued from where we had left it years ago.
May God comfort and give strength to her family and many friends among the mourners for Zion and Jerusalem.
Rabbi Yossie Goldman
Director, Hillels of Israel
Working with Ruth harkens back to a different era in Hillel. I first met her when I presented with Alan Lettofsky and others at a panel discussion at the Professional Staff Conference held, I believe, at Grossingers. She published the session in a small monograph entitled “Reflection and Commitment” – My first published work – I took two copies and sent one to my mother. When I moved to the National Office – this was before it was proclaimed the “International Center” the entire national staff occupied ½ of the fourth floor of the B’nai B’rith building on 17th Street. BBYO occupied the other half. I believe there were nine of us.
Ruth was a beautiful, elegant woman who brought class, style, good cheer and good humor to Hillel. She was grounded in the academic world and her commitment to professional elevated us all. She made Hillel a warmer and richer place.
May her memory be for a blessing.
Hillel Southeastern Liaison
Ruth always struck me as a woman with grace and class. I remember so clearly how she welcomed me from Israel with such joy and warmth every time I saw her.
May her memory be a bracha to us all.
Hillel Director of Student Life in Israel
Ruth Cernea was a class act. I loved her femininity. She was an independent woman who was wonderfully dressed, usually with jewelry from some exotic place she had visited. To say "I loved her femininity" may seem strange, but when I met her, 27 years ago, there was no other woman who I recall working at her level in the field. It was both comforting and inspirational.
I loved talking to Ruth. She was always interesting. Her broad knowledge of worldly matters combined with poise and humility made her a delightful conversationalist.
In short, Ruth made an impression and in this sad moment, I realize the impression is a lasting one. May her memory be for a blessing.
Executive Director, Brooklyn College Hillel
Every conversation we shared she educated me in Jewish history, Israel and the holidays. And for a guy, I even noticed the jewelry she wore - a statement of her artistic side. I will remember her always.
Former Director of Building Services
I really admired Ruth. She was smart, vivacious, a good writer, fun, attractive, sophisticated, and really loved Hillel. She enjoyed keeping in touch with the directors in the field and valued them as educators and teachers.
Susan Behrend Jerison
Former Vice President for Governance
Ruth of course wrote the Hillel newsletter and kept us all up to date in the most literate way.
But what I think of first when I think of Ruth is her warmth. Ruth lived and modeled what we all talk about in Hillel: she was always happy to see you, always connected to what was important to you, always had something interesting and challenging to say about and add to it.
Executive Director, Hillel at the University of Illinois, Chicago
Ruth was quintessential Hillel: deeply Jewish and deeply curious, celebrating each Jew each day. She thought the Hillel idea was majestic, and she contributed to it with her thoughtful scholarship, her goodness, and her exploration of Jewish life around the world. She was proper and caring, never failing to express joy and appreciation. She elevated all who had contact with her. She was a gift to us all.
Richard M. Joel,
President, Yeshiva University
Former President of Hillel