Believing in young Jews who want to change the world

I interviewed Ruth Schulman on November 2—the 11th of Heshvan—the date of her daughter Amy Adina’s yahrtzeit. It had been 20 years since Adina, an undergraduate at Rutgers, died. She had been 20. If she had lived, she would be turning 40.

“Adina’s yahrtzeit always coincides with Princeton at the height of its autumn glory,” Ruth said. “It’s so beautiful here, the leaves are falling, and my body always feels pain, my system feels such physical shock. Every year at this time, I find I have to cry, I have to talk to people about Adina.”

Ruth had just returned from a meeting of an interfaith group that was supporting a Nicaraguan refugee when the phone rang. It was 10 PM. It was someone from a hospital wanting permission to treat Ruth’s daughter. Ruth told them, “I don’t know what you’re talking about; Adina’s over 18—she can give permission.” The caller replied, “She’s in a coma.” Ruth repeated, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Ruth and her husband Mel hurried to New Brunswick, New Jersey, where they were told that their perfectly healthy daughter had had an aneurism that had flooded her brain. There was nothing the physicians could do. Ruth called their son Dan and screamed at him, “Call Joel—your sister is dying and you have to get to the hospital immediately.”

At 2:30 AM, a resident asked the Schulmans about organ donation. “It was 1986,” Ruth remembers. “People weren’t yet really talking about ‘organ donation’. We had just been in the emergency room; it was all so impossible. We were absolutely stunned. But the resident had asked us to talk about organ donation, and so we talked about what Adina would do. She was an activist—always out there with petitions, demonstrating— anti-war, pro-environment. She’d spent a year on a kibbutz and she would write home about sexism, about writing Golda Meir to object to West Bank settlements. She had very liberal values, and she really believed that a single person could change the world.”

The family agreed to donate Adina’s organs. “This is exactly what Adina would want,” Ruth remembers them saying. “Adina was a perfect candidate—20, healthy. I remember sitting next to her, thinking, ‘This is Sleeping Beauty.’ She looked absolutely perfect. There was nothing wrong with her.”

The following day Adina’s friends told the Schulmans that a group of them were visiting a friend off-campus when Adina very suddenly said, “I have a terrible headache. Not like anything I’ve had before. I’m going to die. Call my parents and tell them I love them.” She fell and couldn’t get up. The ambulance wouldn’t take her without her permission, so her friends screamed at her, “Say yes, yes, yes!” Adina somehow got out the word “Yes.”

“What do you do when you have a 20-year-old daughter who is gone in an instant?” Ruth asks. “You don’t just put a plaque on a wall.” Donations in Amy Adina’s memory poured in, and the Schulmans—not knowing what to do with the money—asked their synagogue to hold it.

“We sat Mel and I and the kids, over a period of weeks, and we talked,” Ruth remembers. “We needed to keep Adina’s presence in this world. But how? How do you do that? We felt that Adina would want us somehow to keep her values alive, her commitment to social justice.”

Ruth recalled being impressed in her own early adulthood by an activist named Abie Nathan who had become so frustrated by the political impasses in Israeli-Egyptian relations that he sold everything he owned, bought a boat and sailed the Mediterranean—broadcasting messages of peace in international waters. “It was powerful to see an individual—one person—commit himself to something he believed in passionately,” Ruth says. “Abie Nathan did something.”

The Schulmans found themselves asking, “Who is supporting young people going off and committing to what they want to do?” And they found themselves answering, “There seems to be no one.” Says Ruth, “When we arrived at the right answer, it seemed so simple.”

Giving monies to causes that Adina championed—women’s issues, racial justice, progressive politics—lacked the immediacy that the Schulmans were after, the gift of implicitly trusting Adina, and, by extension, young pragmatist activists like her.

“In essence, we decided that we wanted to say to our young applicants, ‘We don’t have a lot of money to give you. But what you want to do to make this a better world, that’s what you should be doing—and we want to support you’.” Their grantees, besides having a plan and a supervisor, had to make a commitment to speak formally about what they had done at the end of their project—at their synagogue, in a peer organization, in their community. Over the years the Schulmans have funded 367 young people, in projects that range from building latrines in Honduras, to working to outlaw the sexual trafficking of young women in Israel, to researching church-state separation in Western countries as part of a law clerkship for Israel’s chief justice.

The Fund also sponsors one speaker each year at the The Jewish Center of Princeton, the Schulman family’s home congregation. Speakers, needless to say, reflect Adina’s values, and have included Merle Feld, a poet and playwright, and Alice Shalvi, the founder of the Israel Women’s Network.

As Ruth and I talked, she noted that Adina’s upcoming birthday would mark the first day that Adina was deceased longer than she had been alive. “I don’t know where to put that,” Ruth said, “how to deal with that. Up until now she’s been alive. Is it time to forget her now? To remember her with just a corner of my mind? I can’t do that. Just like I couldn’t stop saying Kaddish after a year—I wasn’t ready to stop.

“People would say to me, ‘You have such faith. Such belief. But that wasn’t the case. I davvened because that was my time to be with my daughter. I could be with her for that half hour, and then I could go out into the world.

“The one question I still can’t answer is, ‘How many children do you have?’ I tell them I have one son and where he lives, and a second son and where he lives. I don’t give a number unless I want to get into it—because I have three children.

“Adina is amberized at 20 as a college coed who was a neuro-psychology major. I still see her friends—she had such a large, close chevrah—their babies, their husbands. I hear about their careers. But I can’t go that far into the future in thinking about Adina. All I know is where she was. I have to live with what I had and what was delicious. Would she be a social worker? Living in Israel? Would she be a wife? Adina used to say, ‘I want to make aliyah and I want my parents to do it with me.’ She was attached to so many things, trying to pull everything she loved together.

“After she died, I did something terrible. I watched ‘Our Town’ on TV, the part where Emily, who died in childbirth, wants to go back to her town for one day and she chooses her i2th birthday. She sits on a stool invisible to her mother, and her mother is talking and talking. ‘We have to do this and we have to do that. We’re going to have a cake….’ Mama is too busy to look at her. And Emily says, ‘Mama. Look at me. Just look at me’—and her mother’s talking and running all around.

“I thought, Adina would say the same thing. She’d say, ‘Mama. Just look at me’. I was working and Mel was retired. He took her shopping for her first evening gown. When she needed a bathing suit, he’d be the one to say, ‘You can’t wear that bikini!’ All that time that we were so busy doing things…. There should have been more time looking at her, quietly, just the two of us, talking. Quietly. I want that time with her.

“When Mel got sick, we had learned this. His last four years, we really did them together. That’s what we learned. You have to &e with each other.”

Ruth notes that administering the Fund takes an enormous amount of time—”It runs me instead of me running it”—but she continues to do it because new generations of young committed activists have projects that are wonderful. “I want to say, ‘Yes, that’s important’, ‘Yes, go do that’. ‘What you are doing is terrific’.

“I also run the Fund,” Ruth says, “because Adina was my daughter and I can’t let her go.”