Remembering Temple Israel’s 111-Year-Old ‘Grandma Ruth’

Ruth Knelman, a fixture at Temple Israel for more than 70 years and a long-time volunteer in the synagogue’s Early Childhood Center, passed away on May 16 at 111 years old – five days shy of her 112th birthday.

“I can hear her voice when asked ‘What’s your secret of living so long?’” Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman said at Wednesday’s funeral. “‘I do everything wrong’ she says: ‘I don’t exercise I eat whatever I want. I drink. And have no stress. Stress is the worst thing for you.’”

“Grandma Ruth,” as she was affectionately known around Temple Israel, was born in Hudson Bay Junction, Saskatchewan, before moving with her family to Winnipeg. She married Edward Knelman in Winnipeg and they eventually moved to Grand Forks, North Dakota. In the early 1950’s they moved to Minneapolis.

After arriving in the Twin Cities, Knelman was deeply involved with her community and has long volunteered at local organizations including at Mt. Sinai Hospital and Hadassah. At Temple, she met multiple generations of families who in many cases became close friends. 

“She collected people as one collects coins or stamps,” Zimmerman said. “Ruth brought together the people all around: the nursery school moms, friends in her building, old friends, new friends random encounters. They all became friends. I remember she met someone, I think in a taxi, and they ended up coming to her New Year’s Day party. She was so engaging. She understood what it meant and everybody wanted to connect with her in the most awesome way.”

Zimmerman said that her volunteerism at Temple extended beyond the ECC – although she was a regular in the nursery school when Zimmerman’s own children (now 32, 29 and 27) were there.

“She was always a volunteer,” Zimmerman said. “She cooked meals for the sisterhood and other events. And she came every Friday night for Shabbat without fail. She felt alive being Grandma Ruth here at Temple Israel.”

Part of being Grandma Ruth meant giving the Sisterhood and Men’s Club Kiddush cup to her former students as they b’nai mitzvah.

“[At] Friday night services, she would actually tell the history of their families. She would talk about the details of their lives into her 90s and her 100s,” Zimmerman said. “Her memory was sharper than people a quarter of her age. She attended confirmations and weddings, and then became Grandma Ruth, to the children of the children who were in the ECC. She was here every Friday night, up until COVID, sitting in her seat in the sanctuary.”

She was a long-time volunteer at the Jefferson Community School in Minneapolis, outside the Jewish community. 

“She made quite an impact on me, the teachers, and the other staff members because she almost never failed to show up,” said retired Jefferson principal Mitchell Trockman. “The kids loved her and she just provided superior service to kids over a long period of time. She was never judgmental of their economics or other situations. If I had to design a volunteer she would have been the model for anything we could have had.”

Trockman couldn’t attest to how long she had been at the school, as she had been well established before he got to the school – and then was still volunteering when he retired; she inherited him — and outlasted him.

“She outlasted most of the teachers and certainly principals,” Trockman said with a laugh. 

Zimmerman also inherited Knellman when she arrived at Temple.

“How do you put into words the life of this amazing woman? Truly an icon, a mascot to Temple Israel,” Zimmerman said. “[She was] a woman who loved life so much she never wanted to die. And we all believed she was going to be the person who never died. She always wanted to make it to 120. While she died at 111, five days short of her birthday. I am gonna give her 112. I don’t know if I have the authority to do so, but I am taking it. I am doing it in Ruth’s style.”

Preceded in death by her husband, Edward; parents, Irving and Bella Adler; sister, Francis Arnold; and brother, Alfred Adler. Survived by son, Kip (Suzanne) Knelman; grandchildren, Ben, Joey (Jake), and Jak (Alex) and great-granddaughter, Elizabeth Clay Knelman.