HIAS Mourns the Passing of Michael B. Rukin

Posted by Gideon Aronoff on Tue, Feb 22, 2011 at 15:04 pm

The entire HIAS family—board and staff—mourns the untimely death of our immediate past chair, Michael B. Rukin, 70 of Boston, who died last Friday following a stroke. An early activist in the Soviet Jewry movement, Michael first came on the HIAS board in 1986, completing that term in 1998. Then, in 2003, he was re-elected to his second term. So, except for a brief five-year interlude, he has been a towering presence on the HIAS board for the better part of three decades, chairing innumerable committees until he rose to chair the board in 2007.

For those of us who knew and worked with Michael, it is difficult to imagine undertaking new business without first hearing a perfectly placed and phrased prophetic story that drew on his extensive knowledge of Jewish liturgy and Yiddish folklore. It is also hard to imagine not receiving e-mails, most frequently coming from Israel, but really from all points of the globe.

He had a voracious appetite for life and for knowledge and his impact was felt across the breadth of his interests: in addition to HIAS, he served as chair of Hillel: the Foundation for Campus Life, the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, and the Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston, where he lived for the majority of his adult life. He also was involved in the Foundation for Jewish Camp, the Jewish Outreach Institute and others, too numerous to name.

Michael Rukin inspired affection from all who knew him. He was an engaged and beloved family member, who doted on his daughters and their families. Here is just a sample of the notes left in the guestbook of the Boston Globe:


To the Rukin family: Michael came into our lives over thirty five years ago as an excited young entrepreneur looking to conquer the world of technology. His enthusiasm, love of life and creativity was obvious from the moment we met. It has been a joy being involved in discussions relating to life from personal to worldwide, to business and to trading anecdotes of our respective ethnic backgrounds. To us he lives on as a role model, one who has left an enviable mark on this world. We send our love and prayers to all three Rukin generations.

Marie and Vince Amato,
Matawan, New Jersey

To the Rukin family...I have learned much from your father and had much, much more to learn. He was a great man and a loving father and grandfather...i know that only from the words he shared with me about his family in private conversation. He will be deeply missed!

Steve Durkee,
Ellicott City, Maryland

Michael came to speak to our regional rabbinic group in 1978 about the importance of visiting and supporting Soviet Jews who were refused permission to emigrate. As a direct result, a few months later, a colleague and I were on a plane to Moscow for a mission, which made a difference in many lives, not least our own. Michael was one great motivator—and followed through with support and encouragement. His memory will be for a blessing.

Rabbi Neil Kominsky,
Brookline, Massachusetts


The family has suggested that to honor Michael Rukin's memory, donations may be made to HIAS, Hillel and/or CJP.



Eulogy for Michael B. Rukin delivered by longtime friend and fellow HIAS Board Member Neil Moss, February 21, 2011

Next week’s Torah portion is one that Michael Rukin truly appreciated.

In this parsha, the Torah describes the appointment of Betzalel to supervise the construction of the Mishkan, or Holy Tabernacle.

The Torah describes Betzalel, saying “God endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft… and to give directions.”

Michael was a Betzalel in his own right, a man capable of bridging the spiritual and physical worlds, of understanding abstract concepts and making them real, whether in the construction of an electronic component, a company or a Jewish organization. And boy was Michael capable of giving directions!

The rabbis said that Betzalel had the chutzpah to tell Moses that he gave the wrong instructions on how to build the Mishkan. “Surely Moses must have misunderstood God’s intentions.”

I can easily see Michael telling Moses that he was wrong, that Michael understood God’s intentions better!

In the 30 years that I knew Michael, I was always impressed with his ability to see what others may have missed and to get the job done. In so many ways—in his family life, in his career and in his philanthropic endeavors—Michael was a courageous and strong-willed innovator who left us a legacy that touched us all and improved our world.

I first met Michael through our work together at the Jewish Agency for Israel in Jerusalem. Michael was a devoted advocate for Israel and for the unity of the Jewish people around the world. Heaven help those who would attack Israel or exclude anyone from our global tribe. Especially interfaith or gay and lesbian families. I was impressed by his depth of knowledge, his command of Hebrew and Jewish sources, his business sense, his focus on details, his abilities with budgets and finance, and his passionate drive to accomplish his objectives.

Michael took me under his wing and showed me how to fulfill one’s beliefs in an organizational setting. He showed me that it took creativity, eloquence and determination. Diplomacy? Well, not so much! Michael called me his Secretary of State and from time-to-time would ask me to help moderate his occasional exuberance!

But sometimes it takes a single-minded leader to accomplish great things.

Many of us remember a Hillel that was dying under the weight of its own tradition, unable to support its work, inspire its staff, or fulfill its mission to our young people on campus. Michael led the effort to save Hillel from demise, bringing together different groups and participating in difficult negotiations that led to the renaissance of this Jewish organization. Today Hillel is a thriving agency that inspires, engages and educates tens of thousands of Jewish college students every year in over 500 robust centers around the world. A generation of young people is in his debt. I was proud to follow in his footsteps as chairman of the Hillel Board.

I was also honored to be invited by Michael to serve on the Board of HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the international migration agency of the American Jewish community—an organization that has had an extraordinary impact on millions of Jews, including my parents in the late 1930’s. For generation after generation, HIAS has provided lifesaving rescue and refuge to world Jewry, and more recently to immigrants and refugees from countries all over the world, because we, too, were once “strangers in a strange land.” It was Michael, as chairman of the board, who coined the slogan “Al HaMishmar,” always on guard, in the event that HIAS’ work might once again have to be directed to Jews fleeing countries of persecution. Just as with Hillel and other organizations he chaired, Michael was once again a “change agent,” helping HIAS become the world-class organization it is today.

Michael brought this same determination to his personal life as well. It has been my great joy and privilege to vacation with Michael where I could watch him lavish affection on children. Michael helped my 5-year old grandson create a business in a kids play house he had built for his grandchildren at Lake Winnipesaukee. Together Michael and Raleigh developed a comprehensive business plan for “Raleigh’s Restaurant,” complete with product development, branding and positioning and, of course, pricing!

Michael delighted his much beloved grandchildren with his great tales of the fearsome Pirates of Lake Winnipesaukee. I know that he looked forward to sharing his 70th birthday with his entire family on a great Pirates of Winnipesaukee cruise he had arranged for yesterday, celebrating with the people he loved most.

Michael’s life has been a bittersweet journey, and the last two weeks have been particularly difficult. I have been deeply touched by the love and courage of his daughters Lisa, Deborah, Morreen and Kira, who were at his bedside for many long hours over these past two weeks. Their strength and outpouring of love and support for him during his final days were profoundly moving. I know their father was proud of them, their spouses and especially their children, Reni, David, Kobi, Alexa, Sydnie, Jordan and Zev. Sadly, they have lost their beloved “Saba Pop Pop.”

According to the rabbis, when Betzalel told Moses that he was wrong, Moses responded, "You are right. You must have been in the shadow of God—be-tzal-el—for that is what God commanded me."

Michael, too, lived his life in God’s shadow. Now, perhaps, he has stepped from the shadow into God’s light.

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