Kol Ami — The Northern Virginia Reconstructionist Community
Richard Ruth was born in New Haven on Sept. 15, 1953, the oldest of three boys, to Vivian and Bob Ruth. Bob was an accountant who worked for the state of Connecticut. Vivian worked in the schools as a teacher’s aide and ran the language lab; she was also a political activist and bequeathed that gift to Richard. The kids – Richard, David (zichrono livracha), and Larry grew up in a tightknit, very close and loving family. Every Sunday they went for dinner in West Haven with the Hubblebank grandparents who played a large role in the family’s life.
Richard was an A student, learning multiple languages including Spanish, German, Chinese and Japanese. The family belonged to a Reform synagogue whose rabbi was focused on the civil rights movement and was a friend of Ralph Abernathy. Not that the congregation was always behind the rabbi in being socially conscious, but at least one congregant was. Richard wanted to follow in the rabbi’s footsteps and even at age 14 or 15 he dreamed of becoming a rabbi.
That came to an end the day he heard the rabbi tell his Hebrew school class that homosexuality was an abomination. Richard left the synagogue and left Judaism behind. (Bizarrely, well really, not so bizarrely at all, the rabbi himself eventually came out as gay.) But it would be years before Richard returned to Judaism, and it would take the love of one James North to make that happen.
Meanwhile, Richard set out to find his path in life. He spent some of his teen years in Argentina where he had an uncle; forever afterwards he had strong feelings for Argentina, and rejoiced in their soccer victories. But he also lived through the traumatic beginnings of what would become Argentina’s “dirty war” in the 70s, and his own political activism put him at risk. Eventually, his friends drove him to the airport, handed him his passport and $20, and put him on a plane out of the country.
Safely back in the United States, Richard lived in New York City, opposing the Vietnam War and attending the New School. He graduated with a bachelor’s in what he wryly called Home Economics, but which actually included courses in education, psychology, Spanish, and social sciences. He got a Master’s in psychology from Yeshiva University in 1977, and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology in 1986.
Even while studying for his doctorate, Richard set out to make the world a better place. After a series of positions, he became a staff psychologist at Gouverneur Hospital in New York, which served immigrant populations in Little Italy, Chinatown, and the Lower East Side. This was the early 1980s when the AIDS crisis tore through a generation of young gay men. Witnessing the injustices, the stigma, and the deaths of hundreds of his friends and patients stayed with Richard for the rest of his life. He would remind us, in the last few years, that we in America had indeed lived through a pandemic before – but so many of us alive at the time ignored and dismissed it.
In the mid-1980s Richard moved to this area, serving as director of the Endependence Center in Arlington which promoted independent living for persons with disabilities. Then came a stint as staff psychologist at the Northern Virginia Mental Health Institute in Falls Church … then clinical coordinator of emergency services at Arlington Mental Health Center — always taking on more and more complex responsibilities.
A strong affinity for Puerto Rico led Richard to become Director of the Puerto Rico Research Institute for 13 years. In the 1990s, he started his own private practice, while also becoming Director of Psychology at Chestnut Lodge Hospital in Montgomery County, MD. Never one to shy away from challenges, he specialized in treating persons with developmental disabilities and survivors of sexual abuse and their families.
Then in 2006 Richard made the leap to academia, starting as an adjunct at George Washington University’s Center for Professional Psychology, and quickly moving up (as he always did) to Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology. Two things stood out to me from his 15 year career at GW. First was his love not only of teaching but of working, guiding, and mentoring doctoral students – work that gave him enormous gratification where he could build a collegial and supportive atmosphere. And second, his clinical and research focus was always on people who were marginalized even in the mental health field – trans kids, abused kids, the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities, people with traumatic experiences of all kinds. To all these patients Richard brought not only his own hard-earned wisdom, but a profound ability to listen to the other, to hear what was being conveyed in words and also beyond words.
GW provided a congenial home for Richard’s work until his retirement in 2019. Well, Richard called it retirement, but it sure didn’t seem that way to the rest of us. He continued to consult with graduate students as Associate Professor Emeritus of Clinical Psychology at GW. He continued to work with students in China through the China America Psychoanalytic Alliance. He continued to serve on the faculty of the Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy Program, at the Washington School of Psychiatry; he continued writing scholarly papers as he had done prolifically in previous decades; he continued seeing private patients who needed him more than ever during the pandemic.
And, oh yes, if that wasn’t enough, he began a course of studies in rabbinic work, became ordained as a rabbi in 2022, and then became the first rabbinic fellow at Kol Ami. What didn’t he do at Kol Ami? He led our Shabbat services regularly, he instigated a morning minyan to anchor us during the pandemic, he opened up our sacred texts for our teenagers and invited them to ask any question or comment on anything that came to mind, just like the rabbis of the Talmud did. He brought a new appreciation of queer Torah to our midst. He encouraged Jim to become our beloved Hazzan and to take on an ever larger role in leading services. He created two adult Talmud study circles, mentored new members, coached people studying for conversion, and made Kol Ami as welcoming to the LGBTQ community as we like to think we are. All that while listening to each one of us, truly listening – he was a holy presence in our midst. As our member Harriet Epstein wrote, Richard “spread love like it was soft butter.”
One of our students emailed me about Richard and Jim’s hospitality at Passover a year ago. Troy wrote:
Daniel and I, together, had only that one encounter with Jim and Richard at their Seder last year, but they really taught us both a whole master class in life! … Apart from being a Jewish icon in my book, I’ll always look up to [Richard] as a queer ancestor of mine. The way he lived and loved so authentically was a testament to how beautiful and wholesome queer love can be.
As Jim will tell you, when he and Richard met 28 years ago, it was love at first sight. It took them 8 and a half years to be able to marry legally, first in Toronto, and then in an extraordinarily beautiful wedding ceremony here in this Sanctuary, officiated by Rabbi Leila Berner. Throughout, Richard and Jim have been inseparable companions, lovers, spouses, soul mates. Jim, we are indebted to you for making a home with Richard at Kol Ami, for supporting all his endeavors, for building a bayit ne’eman b’Yisrael, a faithful household among our people, for keeping Richard going, through sickness and health — especially over this past year when the medical challenges mounted so high that even Richard’s tremendous force of will could ultimately not surmount them.
We are sad for Richard and for the world that his life was cut short. But he packed so much into the life he had. Our tradition says shivim la’sova, the age of 70 is for contentment, but Rabbi Richard reached contentment even before reaching 70. When I asked him last year what it meant to him to become a rabbi, he said, “the fulfillment of a dream from 53 years ago.” He got to see his dreams fulfilled, and he did God’s work on this earth.