Ruth White, actress and rebbetzin, dies at 97

She acted on Broadway in the 1930s, but the biggest role of Ruth White’s life was as wife and helpmate to one of the most prominent rabbis in San Francisco history.

Married to Congregation Beth Sholom’s Rabbi Saul White ––– who served that synagogue for a remarkable 48 years –– Ruth White gave up a promising acting career to be a mother and rebbetzin.

 

Ruth White

Ruth White died Dec. 5 at the Coventry Park assisted living community in San Francisco. She was 97.

 

“She was a tremendous support to my dad,” remembered her son, David White, who currently serves as rabbi at Vallejo’s Congregation B’nai Israel. “She subsumed her whole life for him, and was a true partner to him.”

Added her daughter, Linda Michels of Orinda: “At the same time she wanted us [kids] to have a normal life. She protected us a lot and helped us to be regular folks.”

Born in Brooklyn in 1913, Ruth Shapiro had “a flair for the dramatic,” said her son, and trained for a life on the stage. David White said she made it all the way to Broadway, earning “rave reviews for shows that were panned.”

All that changed when she met Polish-born Rabbi Saul White, who accepted a rabbinic post at Beth Sholom, a new congregation all the way across the country in San Francisco.

While her husband became a towering figure in the Bay Area Jewish community, leading his congregation, starting Brandeis Hillel Day School and working closely with the nascent civil rights movement, Ruth White played a quieter behind-the–scenes role.

Her “niche,” said her son, was to bring a touch of theater to Beth Sholom, largely with self-penned annual confirmation pageants for temple youth, or “cantatas,” as she called them.

But White kept her theatrical and musical standards high, even if it meant benching her own children.

Recalled Michels, who admits to being unable to carry a tune: “When I was getting confirmed, singing a cantata she wrote, she encouraged me to mouth the words because she wanted it to be good.”

David White remembers writing a high school play that his mother directed, only to have her cast him in a bit part because “I wasn’t good enough. She was tough.”

Her son remembers having the chance to see his mother on the legitimate theater stage in a production of the Broadway hit “The Chalk Garden” at San Francisco’s now-defunct Actor’s Workshop. “I was impressed,” he said of her performance.

White also was active with the Beth Sholom Sisterhood and with Hadassah.

After her husband’s death in 1983, Ruth White insisted on independent living, something she never relinquished. In addition to her three children, White was very close with her nine grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren.

Even when afflicted by blindness several years ago, she loved going out to dinner and spending time with family. “She really survived quite well,” said Michels. “The family was her support system.”

White may have been somewhat overshadowed by her larger-than-life husband, but she took Jewish values seriously. Michels said her mother kept a ledger book of her charities.

“I was shocked at how many things there were,” she said. “Jewish causes, gay causes, the museum, the symphony: She gave a little bit to everybody. Tzedakah was important to her.”

A few years ago, White moved to Coventry Park, remaining independent to the end. Her children say the same spark that drew her to theater as a young girl inspired her to the end.

“She really insisted on excellence,” said David White. “You had to do things right and well.”

Ruth White is survived by her children, David White of Mill Valley, Linda Michels of Orinda and Shalene Hersh of Greenbrae; nine grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren. Donations may be made to Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco, Jewish Family and Children’s Services or to the charity of your choice.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.