Ruth Nussbaum preserves a Torah on Kristallnacht
Ruth Offenstadt grew up in the cultural heart of Berlin society, could speak several languages, and studied French literature, art and philosophy at universities in Berlin and Geneva. As a single mother, she lived around the corner from Anne Frank in Amsterdam and took a now famous photograph of young Anne and her daughter playing in a sandbox in her back yard. She married Rabbi Max Nussbaum and moved to Berlin to be with him at the Berlin Free Synagogue.
But on Kristallnacht, the night of Nazi rampages against Jewish businesses and religious institutions, the young rabbi and his wife were told that their synagogue was on fire. Max entered the burning building and rescued the smallest Torah from the ark. He and Ruth carefully preserved this Torah and after a few years smuggled it out of Germany as they made their escape. With the help of Rabbi Stephen Wise of New York, they secured a position for Max at a small synagogue in Muskogee, Oklahoma.
Ruth taught Max enough English to begin teaching at the University of Oklahoma and encouraged him to become active in the American Zionist movement. His popularity brought him to the attention of Temple Israel of Hollywood, which offered a home for him and his wife and an ark for their rescued Torah. Ruth not only filled the typical role of rebbitzin for that era (giving him advice on his sermons, driving him to his appointments, keeping track of those in his congregation, and raising their family); she became active in Hadassah, the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In the 1950s, she and her husband became active in the Civil Rights Movement, welcoming the Rev. Martin Luther King to speak to their congregation in 1965.
Their activism on behalf of Israel brought them to national and international attention. They were participants in the first UJA mission to Israel, and they shared the Brandeis Award of the Zionist Organization of America. They met with Israeli prime ministers and attended President Lyndon Johnson’s state dinner for Levi Eshkol at the White House, where Ruth danced with the president.
After her husband’s death in 1974, Ruth Nussbaum continued fighting for the causes she believed in – religious pluralism, human rights, and democracy in Israel. In 1992 Temple Israel of Hollywood named their sanctuary as the Rabbi Max and Ruth Nussbaum Sanctuary – the home of their rescued Torah and perhaps the first synagogue to honor both its distinguished rabbi and its rebbitzin together.
Read more about Ruth’s life at We Remember: Ruth Nussbaum, 1911-2010.