Ruth Estrich grew up in Swampscott and Marblehead. She eventually moved to Philadelphia where she became an executive in the insurance industry, but she never forgot her North Shore roots. Her parents had served on the board of directors of the former Temple Israel, which merged with Beth El to become Congregation Shirat Hayam. She faced cancer at 32 and survived, and has a son, Dorian. Several years ago she moved back to Marblehead and returned to Shirat Hayam – where she currently serves as president.
Whoever said “ You Can’t Go Home Again” didn’t have you in mind. Can you tell us just a little about your journey growing up in Swampscott and Marblehead … and returning many years later to Marblehead?
Thomas Wolfe clearly has never been to the North Shore! All my grandparents were born in Russia (Ukraine? Lithuania?) and came here in the early 1900s. My father grew up in Lynn and my mother in Salem, and neither of them ever left. As a young married couple, they lived in a studio apartment in The Breakers in Lynn when I arrived – where they added a crib to the Murphy bed in the one small room. Two years later, another crib was added when my sister Susan arrived. We moved to Swampscott in time for twin beds and the arrival of my brother, completing the family, and then to Marblehead, when I was entering the sixth grade. I remember sitting at Fort Sewall as a tortured teenager, listening to the waves and wondering where life would take me. I went off to college without a backwards glance.
The sudden death of my father a few years later from a heart attack helped to propel me elsewhere. I moved to Chicago with my then-boyfriend, who was enrolling in a PhD program. To support us, I continued with my early IT work and found a position at a Fortune 200 insurance carrier, where I built the foundation for a successful career in health insurance and managed care. I happily traveled from the Philadelphia area – where I settled – to the Boston area frequently on business and often stayed the weekend to visit my mother and friends, attending Shabbat services, and returning to Fort Sewall whenever I could. On one of those trips, I went to look at a condo in a harbor-hugging building that rarely had units for sale and made an impulse purchase. With no immediate plans to either stop working or relocate, I rented my apartment with some vague thoughts of future possibilities.
I eventually retired, gutted the apartment, bought my next-door neighbor’s place and combined the two units, and now I go to sleep every night to the sound of the sea and watch the sun rise every morning, lighting the way for the early Fort Sewall walkers.
You are now the current president of the board at Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott. What were your goals when you first assumed the presidency?
My first goal was to stop tearing up every time I thought about how proud my parents would have been. They joined Temple Israel (Shirat was formed almost 20 years ago from the merger of Temple Israel and Temple Beth El) when I was born, and both served on the board of directors. I couldn’t help but imagine them kvelling.
The challenges that Shirat faced were significant. We were well into COVID and were struggling to maintain continued financial support for a place that most people couldn’t or wouldn’t physically enter. We had also just let go of our cantor and that process had generated divided feelings among congregants and board members. While I had just successfully headed up the national search for a replacement, we had only met on Zoom. The need to create a close and warm relationship between our clergy was critical going forward, and completely untested. Finally, we had been operating without an executive director for years and we were starting to feel some real operational and physical plant-based challenges. So my goals included repairing relationships, fostering a culture of participation, increasing revenues and stabilizing financials, on-boarding Cantor Sarah (Freudenberger), renewing Rabbi Michael Ragozin’s contract, and hiring an executive director.
How did you navigate COVID at Shirat, and within your own life, and how have your perspectives changed?
I have had a complicated health history that put me at great risk in the early days of COVID. I was told by my physicians that I would likely not survive if I contracted the illness. I essentially quarantined for almost a year, and relied on friends to bring me groceries and limited contact to outdoors on my harborside deck with masks and social distancing. Our policies at Shirat mirrored my personal experiences and were designed to encourage a safe return to indoor gatherings while minimizing risk for everyone. We had a task force that met regularly and adjusted our policies over time and were proud that at no time did we experience an incidence of known in-synagogue infection spread. We also worked very creatively with streaming and videography to bring an experience of community and connection to those who chose to stay at home.
I recently had COVID for the first time and while my symptoms were a bit more challenging than all of my friends, I survived with ease. I am grateful for the perspective that these challenges have provided regarding what is important and what is not, and I am also less concerned now with scrupulously avoiding risks in favor of living a life worth living.
You also have had an amazing health journey that you shared in your memoir, “Letters to Dorian.” Can you speak about how that experience has shaped you?
When I was 32 years old, I was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma – and went from worrying about whether I would have a date on Saturday night to whether I would live to turn 33. That diagnosis changed the trajectory of my life in many ways, and much of who I am is the result of that unexpected road.
From a physical perspective, the massive chemotherapy and radiation that I received caused other medical challenges that I still contend with. I also was told that I would never be able to have children. When I had been in remission for only a few months, I got pregnant and my oncologist strongly counseled that we terminate the pregnancy as it was unclear that I would be alive in two years, let alone live long enough to bring up a child. I declined his advice and had my miracle child, writing a book instead to tell him all I had learned through this incredible journey.
From a philosophical perspective, I let go of my family legacy of fear and anxiety and embraced the point of view that while there is often nothing I can do about the circumstances of my life, there is almost everything I can do about how I handle those circumstances. I would also add that being public about my history and my challenges makes me more available to congregants and friends who need help or advice or someone to talk to as they face their own circumstances and challenges.
Can you share a little about your family life … and also what you like to do in your spare time?
My son Dorian lives in California and has yet to marry or have children. I also have four grown stepchildren who have generously kept me in their lives even as I have ended my marriages to their fathers. Being single and dating at this stage of my life has been an interesting experience and I continue to believe that it is never too late to dream a new dream.
As for spare time, being president of Shirat Hayam has limited my unscheduled time, but when I have it, cooking and writing are my go-to activities. I love having girlfriends and neighbors share my view of the harbor and eat my latest culinary offerings. I also have a second book ready to go and am starting to think about a third. I also paint and used to work in stained glass and would like to find some classes to take.
You and Amy Farber are co-chairing Combined Jewish Philanthropies’ North Shore Spark trip to Israel this spring in honor of Israel’s 75th anniversary. When was the last time you were there and what are you most excited about?
I have only been to Israel once, and that was almost 22 years ago. I was living in Pennsylvania but was here on the North Shore after a business trip and was at Shabbat services at Shirat Hayam when the rabbi announced that there were only a few openings left for their trip to Israel. I immediately signed up and flew from Philly and met a busload of Shirat congregants for a wonderful week. I have been saying that life rarely brings once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, and that is how I am seeing this CJP trip! I can barely wait to be in Israel again, for its 75th anniversary, and with my rabbi and fellow congregants, friends, and neighbors!!
You moved back home and started over as an older adult. What were the challenges and what advice can you give to others?
I freely admit that moving here after I retired, leaving the home I had created and lived in for almost two decades, leaving my marriage and my friends, felt scary. Yet it called to me, and I was willing to give it a go. That first Shabbat, I was questioning my choices as I headed out for Shirat Hayam, excited about actually being there as opposed to watching the shulcast from my Pennsylvania den. I walked into the sanctuary – early and the only one there. Had I made a crazy choice? Would I be able to craft a new and happy life this late in my life? A woman walked in. She looked to be about my age, so I got up and walked over to her, extending my hand, introducing myself as a new member who had returned to my childhood home. She started to cry and told me that she was my grammar school best friend who had moved away when she was seven. I knew instantly that I was exactly where I was supposed to be.
I guess the advice I would give to others goes back to those lessons that I learned when I went from bad-hair days to no-hair days. Follow your heart. Play the cards that you are dealt with passion and audacity and live a life of service and gratitude. The community we have here on the North Shore is so special. So many have opened their hands and hearts to me. I have so many friends here – it is hard to imagine that I have only been here for five years.
I remember that teenager sitting at Fort Sewall – I thought that if I gave too much of myself away, I would have nothing left. I now know as I sit here and look out at that same fort in the last chapter of my life, that the more I give, the more I have. And there is nowhere else in the world that I would rather be.