Rebbetzin Paula Rivkin remembered as ‘woman of valor’

Rebbetzin Paula and Rabbi Sholom Rivkin are pictured in a Jewish Light file photo holding photographs of their respective mothers, in whose honor the Rivkin-Zuckerman Shabbat Mikvah was named.

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Rebbetzin Paula Rivkin, wife of Chief Rabbi Emeritus Sholom Rivkin and a Jewish community leader in her own right, was praised as “a woman of valor” at a memorial service Sunday at Berger Memorial Chapel. Mrs. Rivkin, who proudly preferred to be called “Rebbetzin Rivkin” out of loyalty to her husband of 56 years, died Friday, Jan. 7, 2011 at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, after what family members and close friends called a long and valiant struggle with pancreatic cancer. She was 78.

Mrs. Rivkin was praised not only for her role as the wife of the Chief Orthodox Rabbi of St. Louis, which she took very seriously, but also for her community service, which included serving as a member of the board of directors of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, the board and advisory committee of the St. Louis Jewish Light, and as the driving force behind the refurbishment of the Vaad Hoeir’s community mikvah. She was also, along with Judy Zisk Lincoff, the co-founder of the Jewish Council Against Family Violence (JCAFV), which is committed to ending spousal, child and elder abuse.

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Barry Rosenberg, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, praised Paula Rivkin as “a dearly loved and admired leader in our community, in her own right. Her commitment to Judaism, Klal Yisrael and Jewish education, were inspirational. Her leadership in addressing domestic violence mobilized the community. Her warmth, compassion and good humor made her a friend to many. She will be greatly missed and mourned by the entire community.”

Lincoff, of the JCAFV, and Ilene Joseph, past president, in a joint statement, said, “Rebbetzin Rivkin was a remarkable woman and a dear friend. She was an influential woman, and educator and a person of action. She was a modern thinker and a traditional woman. She was a pioneer. The truth is that she knew no bounds when it came to helping people, especially her community. She appreciated every person and was a tireless advocate for the rights of women. She helped establish the Jewish Council Against Family Violence so that any Jewish woman in need of support would be helped. Rebbetzin Rivkin was dedicated to the deeply held value that ‘to save a life, is as if you have saved the entire world.’ Her goal was to make sure that every woman should have peace in her home and for this reason the JCAFV will be establishing the Rebbetzin Rivkin Emergency Fund.”

Many within the community who knew Paula Rivkin stressed her strong qualities of loyal friendship, her deep devotion to her husband, who has been ill with Parkinson’s disease for over seven years, and for her many other positive qualities. Diane and Paul Gallant, who knew and worked with Mrs. Rivkin for many years, said, “We feel blessed to have had Paula Rivkin in our lives as a dear friend. Everyone should be lucky enough to have someone like her with whom thoughts and ideas can be shared in open discussion free of judgment and/or recrimination. We also drank many lattes together over which we spoke openly about the highs as well as the lows in each of our lives. She was stimulating; she was a free (and very educated) thinker; she was a joy. We will miss her greatly.”

Tom Green, a past president of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, commented on Paula Rivkin’s warm sense of humor. “I was presiding at a Federation board meeting when Paula had become a member. We were having an intense discussion on the ‘Who is a Jew’ controversy. After a number of others spoke, I called on Paula, who said, ‘A Jew is a person who goes to lots of meetings where they always serve good food.’ That was typical of Paula’s sense of humor.”

Warm words of tribute to Paula Rivkin were expressed at the memorial service by Rabbi Moshe Soloveitchik of Beth Sholom Ahavas Achim in Chicago, a longtime friend and mentor, and by Rabbi Menachem Greenblatt of Agudas Israel, on behalf of his colleagues, members of the St. Louis Rabbinical Council, the Vaad Hoeir of St. Louis and “indeed the entire Jewish community.”

A dramatic life story

Both rabbis shared details about her life that could be the basis of dramatic books, plays and films. They pointed out that in her native Vienna, her father and grandfather owned the largest Judaic library in Europe.

“To fully appreciate the magnitude of Rebbetzin Rivkin’s greatness, one must first become somewhat acquainted with her background.” said Rabbi Greenblatt.

She was born Sept. 12, 1932, in Vienna to Rabbi Dov Berish and Rebbetzin Hinda Leah Zuckerman. “As a young girl of 5 or 6, Rebbetzin Rivkin recalled, she came face-to-face with Adolf Eichmann, who appeared in her home and confiscated the library of her father and grandfather,” Greenblatt said. “As he left he told them that he would return some time later to remove the Jews. As one could expect, that chilling experience remained with her throughout her life.”

Linda Mantle, former executive editor of the St. Louis Jewish Light, and a good friend of the Rivkins who interviewed them several times, recalled that Mrs. Rivkin said that “while in her father’s library, Eichmann commented that Paula was a beautiful, blond ‘Aryan’ girl and he would like to adopt her. Her mother insisted that Paula was 100 percent Jewish and therefore he could not adopt her. They knew then and there they would have to escape from Austria, which was then under the control of Nazi Germany.”

Rabbi Greenblatt added that at the outset of World War II, Mrs. Rivkin’s father fled to France, while she and her mother fled to England. “She was separated from her mother for a period of time and lived with a British Lord who provided her with both kosher food and a Melamed, a teacher for Torah study,” Greenblatt said. “She arrived in America in the early 1940s. Her father became the Rov of Buffalo, N.Y. a position he held for 25 years. After he retired he moved to Brooklyn.”

A dedicated Rebbetzin

Mrs. Rivkin met Rabbi Sholom Rivkin on a blind date in Buffalo. They were married in 1954. As a young bride she became the Rebbetzin of Nusach Hari in St. Louis, which was Rabbi Rivkin’s first position in the local community. They remained in St. Louis until 1959, when Rabbi Rivkin was named rabbi of the Bikur Cholim Congregation in Seattle, Wash.

While in Seattle, Mrs. Rivkin earned a bachelor of arts degree in English Literature from the University of Washington. “Together they influenced the lives of many Jews over the 11 years that they spent in Seattle,” Rabbi Greenblatt said.

In 1970 the couple relocated to Bayswater in Queens, N.Y., where Rabbi Rivkin served until 1983, when he accepted the post of Chief Rabbi of the United Orthodox Jewish Community-Vaad Hoeir in St. Louis, succeeding the late Rabbi Menachem Tzvi Eichenstein, who died in 1982. Rabbi Rivkin served in that position until illness forced him to retire in 2005, when he was named Chief Rabbi Emeritus.

In the mid-1970s, Mrs. Rivkin earned a master’s degree in Clinical Psychology from Hunter College. In addition to her responsibilities as Rebbetzin, she worked at a number of colleges, including Queens College in the department of psychological counseling. She went into private practice as well.

Rabbi Greenblatt said, “Rebbetzin Rivkin was both simple and complex at the same time. She possessed a very simple and basic understanding of her main objective in life. She was the proud Rebbetzin of her husband. She was fiercely loyal to him and his position. She protected him, and she provided support and devotion, which enabled Rabbi Rivkin to function on the superlative level that he did.

“We all know that there is an ancient tradition at Jewish marriage for the Kallah (bride) to encircle the Choson (groom) seven times under the chuppah. This symbolizes the protective wall that the wife erects around her husband. I would say that Rebbetzin Rivkin never stopped encircling her beloved husband, her best friend, for 56 years. She was extremely perceptive and she possessed the innate ability to discern what was in the best interests of her husband, the best interest of his rabbinical service, and the best interest of our unique community. She was undaunted in her defense of true Torah ideals and traditions. I always viewed the Rebbetzin and the Rov as a very cohesive team operating like a well-oiled machine in promoting Torah values and service to our community.”

An inclusive approach

Rabbi Greenblatt and many others praised Mrs. Rivkin for her inclusive and accepting approach to the entire community, a value that she shared with her husband, who often said, “A Jew is a Jew is a Jew.” Greenblatt noted, “Rebbetzin Rivkin was blind to walls. She did not erect walls separating Jews from varied backgrounds. To her a Jew was a Jew regardless of background, affiliation or lack thereof. She was accepting of everyone and was extremely non-judgmental. She saw the essence of the person and his or her intrinsic value.”

Milton and Galia Movitz, active volunteers in the local community had a long-standing friendship with both Rabbi Sholom Rivkin and Rebbetzin Paula Rivkin.  Milton Movitz, a past president and current member of the Jewish Light Board of Trustees, recalled Mrs. Rivkins service  as a member of the board, and its editorial and advisory committees.

“Paula Rivkin was a loyal and interested member of the Jewish Light family, always participating and asking good questions and making  constructive suggestions.  Galia Movitz, a past president of the  Jewish Federation Women’s Division (now Women’s Connection), recalled  Mrs. Rivkin’s valued service on both the Women’s Division and Jewish  Federation Boards.

Galia Movitz added, “On a more personal level, Rabbi and Rebbetzin Rivkin were dear friends to Milton, me and our family, performing naming ceremonies, sharing the joy of building their sukkah and teaching us so much about Judaism and Jewish practices.  For a long time, we had a monthly study group for five couples with both Rabbi and Paula Rivkin. Paula was always  available to share her knowledge with the Women’s Division, opening  our meetings with a d’var Torah, doing a Shabbat workshop and so much more. Above all, Paula was always welcoming and generous to everyone, regardless of affiliation or background.”

Following the service, Mrs. Rivkin’s remains were escorted to Israel by members of her family. Shiva was in Jerusalem and burial was in the Mount of Olives Cemetery.

Survivors, in addition to her husband, include Jacqueline Rivkin, of New York; Rabbi Ben Tzion Rivkin of St. Louis; two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Contributions preferred to Ezras Torah, 235 East Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10002-5600, or the Jewish Council Against Family Violence, PO Box 11804, Clayton, Mo. 63105.