Ruth Fien, who fulfilled a lifelong dream as a cocreator of the Jewish Historical Society of MetroWest NJ, died Feb. 8 at the age of 85. She was buried Feb. 14 at B’nai Abraham Memorial Park in Union.
Born at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center and a graduate of Weequahic High School, Ruth Klein Fien’s interest in her local Jewish community was heavily influenced by her father, Sam Klein. He was an accountant who served for 30 years as president of the Hebrew Academy of Essex County, a school that ultimately became Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in Livingston.
“She was an independent woman who loved the community,” said JHS executive director Linda Forgosh. “Ruth inherited a sense of community obligation, and to not preserve the history, in her mind, was probably just as awful as anything else you could think of,” said Forgosh. “She felt the history of the community needed a place.”
In 1988, Fien asked her husband, Jerome, and Saul Schwartz, a friend and assistant executive director of United Jewish Federation of MetroWest (now United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ), to help her create the society. Two years later, the federation’s board of trustees approved the idea, and the Jewish Community Foundation allocated seed money to start the project.
“Our lives were more about community and politics than about history,” said her daughter, Judie Fien-Helfman. “Mom was not a stay-at-home mother,” Fien-Helfman, who inherited that commitment, is the chief planning officer at Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, DC.
“Ruth was a mover and shaker who had the contacts in the community,” said current JHS president Howard Kiesel, a close friend for 25 years. “The people who were the founding members of the society were her contacts. She pulled them in. She was the membership chairman, she was the president, she was the organizer. She was the everything.”
Warren Grover, who followed Fien as the society’s president, serving between 1996 and 2002, praised her creative vision. “She made the society into a first-class Jewish historical institution,” he told NJ Jewish News.
The cornerstone of JHS was the cache of documents and memorabilia Schwartz had been storing in the cellar of his home in Livingston. “He saved things from garbage dumps, and he let it be known that if an institution didn’t want to keep its minutes, he would take care of them,” said Forgosh.
Today that material and more are stored in a state-of-the-art archive with rolling shelves in the collections Forgosh has supervised for a decade.
‘She did good’
Fien’s interests extended far beyond history. She was an avid art aficionada who spent 10 years supervising exhibits at the West Orange JCC.
“She would prowl New York City in search of new artists, visiting galleries and studios,” said her daughter. The exhibits she organized “would last three-four days and raise tens of thousands of dollars for local charities. Her favorite shows were the personal exhibits by seniors and children, but she also used art to teach, and this led to shows on anti-Semitism, prejudice, Israel, and Newark’s history,” said Fien-Helfman.
Fien also turned some of her creative energies to clothing design, creating a cottage industry in tie-making in her family’s South Orange home — always making sure the varying widths of her works kept pace with the changing trends in men’s fashions.
“She was infamous for her neckties,” said Fien-Helfman. “She called them ‘Ruth Fien Originals.’”
“My memories of mom growing up were of a tireless woman who entertained effortlessly, worked or volunteered during the day, loved to travel, and who attacked social and civil injustices,” Fien-Helfman said.
“I remember her love of art, of culture, of tirelessly focusing her moral energy on ideals and causes,” she said at the graveside eulogy for her mother.
But those activities slowed down sharply after Fien suffered a debilitating stroke in 1998. “It left her with partial paralysis and speech difficulties coexisting with an undamaged mind,” said her daughter. “But she found intense joy in life’s simple pleasures — family, good food and wine, and backgammon.”
“She was majestic, regal, and proper,” said Fien’s granddaughter Samantha, Fien-Helfman’s daughter, at the funeral. “She epitomized for me the women in old-fashioned movies — refined and distinguished.”
“She had a good run,” said her son, Mark Fien of Encino, Calif. “She did good and she gave back to the community. We should all be so lucky.”
“Were it not for Ruth Fien there would be no Jewish Historical Society,” said Bob Max, another former JHS president. “I think the community would be poorer were it not for Ruth and the others who created the society. We owe her a deep dept of gratitude.”
Predeceased by her husband, Jerome, who died in 2003, Ruth Fien is survived by her son and daughter and by five grandchildren.
Ruth Fien’s family has requested that those interested in making a donation in her honor contribute to the Jewish Historical Society of MetroWest or the Fien Endowment Fund.