Jewish Community Leader Ruth Magil Perry Dies at 88

Ruth Magil Perry | Courtesy of the Perry family

Ruth Magil Perry, a Jewish community leader known for her 40-plus years of service to organizations like the Jewish Theological Seminary and the American Jewish Congress, died on July 21 at her Jenkintown home. She was 88.

According to family members, Magil Perry served the Jewish community in Philadelphia and New York City in paid and volunteer positions. She also was a fundraiser, speaker and officer for Temple Sinai in Philadelphia, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Camp Ramah Commission, among others. But they said she was proudest of her two elected terms at the helm of the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism, which represented more than 200,000 sisterhood members. 

Through her advocacy, Magil Perry ended up dining with the father of modern Israel, David Ben-Gurion, and sharing cigarettes with the mother of modern Israel, Golda Meir. The former homemaker was driven by a core belief, according to her son Daniel Perry. 

“The world should have Jews,” he said. “She always felt that there was a certain moral obligation to do the right thing and teach those ethics and pass them on.”

Magil Perry is survived by her children Dan (Jennifer Haskell) and Stephanie Perry (Ronan McGrath), as well as her three grandchildren. And her descendants have vivid memories of the Jewish home that she created with her husband of 50 years, M. Milton Perry. 

On Shabbat, the matriarch welcomed a house full of people. She cooked chicken soup, matzah balls, roast chicken, challah and “the best chopped liver ever,” Dan Perry said. If she had 18 guests, she would make chopped liver for 18. Her children were not allowed to miss it even when they got older, though they could bring friends.

One of Dan Perry’s best friends from growing up in the Philadelphia public schools, Benjamin Thompson, was not Jewish. But he came over for Shabbat dinner every Friday night between the ages of five and 15. 

“We dubbed him the Shabbos queen,” Dan Perry said. “Mom would go all out.”

Magil Perry’s rule about making enough food extended to all Jewish holidays, her son explained. It also applied whether the food was brisket or chicken or turkey. 

And in her preparations for meals, Magil Perry made sure to involve first her children and then her grandchildren. The family did not stop at the biggest celebrations, either. On Sukkot, they built a sukkah every year. On Simchat Torah, “we went all out,” Dan Perry said. For Chanukah, Magil Perry even took a page out of the Christmas playbook and decorated her house in color, with blue, silver and white replacing Christmas red and green. 

Stephanie Perry recalled that, if a guest was invited in one time, he or she would inevitably be invited back. After the children left for college, their friends kept stopping by to say hi to their mom. 

“There was always an assortment of people,” Stephanie Perry remembered. “She took Jewish family living seriously.”

Joel Beaver, who served on the board of the AJC during Magil Perry’s tenure as director, used to go to the Perry house for Thanksgiving dinner, Passover seders and Rosh Hashanah dinner. 

“I became an unofficial member of their family,” he said. “She was very knowledgeable about Judaism. Dedicated.”

Ruth Magil Perry with her companion later in life, Manny Grife. | Perry Family Archive

Magil Perry was the daughter of a rabbi: Reuben J. Magil, the spiritual leader of Harrisburg’s Jewish community in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. Magil was a man with “unbelievable curiosity,” Dan Perry said. He had three doctorate degrees and spoke 10 languages. The grandson remembers visiting his grandpa’s Harrisburg home and seeing newspapers in every language all over the place. 

Magil Perry worshipped her father. As Dan Perry put it, they were “amazingly close, on the same page and of the same mind.” The daughter grew up to become the valedictorian of her high school and a University of Pennsylvania graduate. She also carried her father’s Jewish traditions, of observing the Sabbath, attending shul and celebrating all of the holidays, outside of his home. 

“You are Jewish, and this is what we do as Jews,” Dan Perry explained of his mother’s philosophy. 

When Ruth met Milt Perry, the 6-foot-2 football player and bodybuilder with movie star looks was acceptable to her father for one reason.

“He had a bar mitzvah in Atlantic City,” Dan Perry said.

For a while after they got married, though, Milt Perry worked in the paper business and Magil Perry made their Jewish home. But after seven or eight years, she became president of the sisterhood at her synagogue, Temple Sinai, in the early 1960s. 

“That gave her a taste of, ‘Hey, I can be a leader,’” Dan Perry said.

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