Ruth Westheimer was born Karola Ruth Siegel in 1928 Wiesenfeld, Germany and raised in an Orthodox home in Frankfurt. She was the only child of Irma Hanauer, a housekeeper, and Julius Siegel, a notions wholesaler. When her father was deported to a detention camp after Kristallnacht, her mother and grandmother sent Ruth at age 10 to a Swiss children’s orphanage. She never saw any of her family again.
At 17, after the war, she made aliya and changed her name to Ruth, but retained the middle initial K as a reminder of her German name. Ruth became a sniper for the Haganah and was wounded badly by an exploding cannonball. She credits Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem for saving her feet. She used those feet to become an excellent skier, stopping only at age 80.
After her army service, Ruth taught kindergarten and studied psychology at the Sorbonne in Paris. On a visit to the U.S. in 1956, she decided to remain in New York on a scholarship for victims of the Holocaust, and received a master’s degree in sociology, then a Ed.D from Columbia University’s Teachers College. Ruth has taught at several universities, including Yale and Princeton; she currently is an adjunct professor at New York University.
Being short (4 feet 7 inches), she once thought that no man would be interested in her. However, she has been married three times, twice briefly, then to Manfred Westheimer, a telecommunications engineer, for 36 years; he died in 1997. Her daughter, Miriam, directs an early childhood program in New York City, and her son, Joel, a specialist in citizenship education, is a professor at the University of Ottawa. She has four grandchildren.
Her job at Planned Parenthood prompted her interest in human sexuality, when she noted that the employees talked about sex all the time but actually didn’t know anything about sex. Westheimer trained for seven years with Helen Singer Kaplan, a pioneer in the field of sex therapy. But it was her willingness to be controversial and move talk about sex into the public domain that made her a cultural icon. In 1980, Westheimer pioneered the art of speaking frankly about sexual matters with her first radio program, Sexually Speaking, a 15-minute call-in show; the show was expanded to two hours and ran for 10 years. Now known as Dr. Ruth, she hosted her own nationally and internationally syndicated TV show and made frequent appearances on late-night talk shows. Her humorous and uninhibited style, combined with sincerity and common sense, became so popular that it spawned a huge network of mass media, including books, syndicated columns, television shows, documentaries, YouTube videos, computer software, a board game, and her own website, www.dr.ruth.com. She proudly notes that she has 78,400 followers on Twitter.
With regard to her Jewish practice, she has a multidenominational spirit, belonging to several synagogues. She enjoys participating in charitable events, frequently letting Jewish organizations auction off a dinner with her as a fundraiser. Dr. Ruth also has served on the boards of many Jewish organizations.
Dr. Ruth continues to have a close relationship with Israel, visiting every summer and getting together with childhood friends from the orphanage. She has her own weekly series in Hebrew on Israeli television and has produced a series of documentaries on different ethnic communities in Israel. She wears the same necklace every day, an antique Bar Kochba coin in a modern gold setting.
Dr. Ruth has received numerous awards and honors for both her professional and charitable work, including several honorary doctorates, the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, and the Leo Baeck Medal.
Most recently, Dr. Ruth’s life has been featured in a one-woman play: Becoming Dr. Ruth: The Unexpected Journey. At the shows conclusion, actress Debra Jo Rudd holds up a photograph of Westheimer’s four grandchildren, saying “Hitler lost and I won.” Dr. Ruth jokes that her life has come full circle: when she was looking for a job in the U.S. she was advised to take speech lessons to lose her accent, which she couldn’t afford. Now the actress in the play had to take speech coaching to develop an accent to become Dr. Ruth!
Dr. Ruth’s response to her Holocaust loss is to live life to its fullest. She has limitless energy for her professional projects and for her love of New York culture; she is rarely home before 11 pm each evening, attending plays, operas and concerts. Dr. Ruth regards the practice of tikkun olam as a way to use her horrible experiences to live a productive life. Risk-taking also is a hallmark of Dr. Ruth’s life, as symbolized by the collection of turtles in her apartment. “The turtle can stay in its shell ad be safe and boring,” she explains, “but if it wants to move forward it has to stick its neck out. That’s me. If I have to mention one characteristic I have, it is chutzpa.”