If you knew Betty Roswell, then you loved her. She was smart, humble, joyful, genuine, and loving. Most people are lucky to have one or two of these traits; Betty had them all.
Last week we finished our annual study of Genesis; this week we begin exploring Exodus.
Genesis is all about the founding families of Judaism; Exodus begins the larger narrative of the Jewish people.
Like Genesis, Betty Roswell’s long and purposeful life was devoted to her family – but like Exodus, Betty’s life was also about her deep connection to the global family of the Jewish people, here in North America, in Israel and throughout the world.
Betty, along with her beloved husband Arthur, was deeply connected to every part of our global Reform Jewish Movement. Betty and Arthur spent their lives enhancing the core work of each of our Reform Movement institutions from the URJ to WUPJ, IMPJ, IRAC, and HUC-JIR. When they could, they travelled the world, seeing firsthand the many dimensions of our growing Movement. For those of us who got to know and work closely with them, it was a highlight of our leadership. To Betty strangers, were people she hadn’t yet met; she was a natural social worker long before she earned her MSW.
Seven years ago, Betty and Art invited a group of Reform Movement leaders to lunch in their home. The conversation circled the world with the many people, places, and issues that they had encountered. Listening to Betty and Art that day and in subsequent conversations, we were inspired to create a leadership fellowship that would bring together many of their favorite Reform institutions in a new project. Thus, the Roswell Klal Yisrael Fellowship was born, bringing together emerging leaders from the URJ, WUPJ and IMPJ.
Today there are 92 Klal Yisrael Fellows spread out over the globe, leading our Movement. They are in London, Washington, D.C., Tel Aviv, Warsaw, New York, Minsk, Herzliya, Paris, Philadelphia, Berlin, Ramat Gan, and many other places. The fellowship has expanded their worlds and at the very same moment made their worlds smaller by virtue of their network of relationships and collaborations. Each cohort spends three one-week intensives in Israel, Europe, and North America.
Betty and Art loved meeting with the young fellows. At one of those meetings, they begin with singing. As a trained singer, Betty loved adding her voice to theirs with the many accents of our global fellows. Betty loved hearing their life stories and about the work they were doing as young leaders. She remembered each one and enjoyed hearing updates of the impact they were making.
Recently, as the URJ social justice work has taken root in state work, Betty and Arthur were instrumental in creating RAC-NJ to harness the activism of the many congregations in New Jersey to fight for a more just and compassionate state. This was a natural extension of their active involvement in every aspect of their beloved home congregation of Temple Beth El of Hillsborough, N.J., led by their very gifted rabbi, Arnie Gluck. If there was a critical need in our Reform Jewish community Betty and Art always answered “Hineni,” as our biblical ancestors responded when called to sacred service.
At neighboring Rutgers University, they helped create a very strong Reform Jewish presence. I was privileged to join Betty and Art for a special Shabbat evening at Rutgers Hillel on a frigid winter night. We prayed with the vibrant Reform community in the Betty and Arthur Roswell Sanctuary. Betty especially loved singing the new prayer melodies with the college students. Hundreds packed the dining room for Shabbat dinner and then a late convo on critical issues facing Reform Jewish life. As the evening grew late, I saw some of the students fading – but not Betty and Art, who were energized spending Shabbat with the next generation.
Over the past week, as Betty’s family and many loved ones gathered to mourn her, we were finishing the book of Genesis with the portion titled Va-y’chi, which literally means “and Jacob lived” – but the section describes the death of the patriarch Jacob. In tractate Taanit 5b of the Babylonian Talmud we are taught that Jacob is still alive. How? Because there are really two deaths. There is one’s physical death but then there is end of a person’s influence and impact on the world.
For most of us, the two are simultaneous – but for the very special people in our midst, their impact and influence continue long after their physical death. And so it is with Betty Roswell. She will continue to live on through the generations of her devoted and loving family. And she will live remain an animating presence in our global Reform Movement that she and Arthur have helped to nurture and inspire.
How blessed we have all been to know her and to learn from her. Her radiant soul will never stop illumining our world.