There should have been birthday candles. Instead there were candles of mourning.
Janis Ruth Coulter would have been 37 last Monday. The petite blonde, who fell in love with Judaism while studying about the Holocaust in college, should have been celebrating with her friends and coworkers at the East Side offices of the Rothberg International School at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where she served as assistant director of the office of academic affairs.
But on Monday her cubicle was empty. So was her apartment in a red brick building on Ocean Avenue in the Midwood section of Brooklyn.
Her life was snuffed out last week by a terrorist bomb placed on a dining table in the cafeteria of the Frank Sinatra International Student Center at the Mount Scopus campus of Hebrew University.
Coulter was one of five Americans of the seven people killed by the blast, planted by the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas, which also wounded dozens of others.
She was in Jerusalem to escort 19 American students about to begin classes at the scenic campus, where Jews and Arabs had still been able to mingle despite the war between Israel and the Palestinians.
Her boss at Hebrew University, director of academic affairs Amy Sugin, said Coulter was "extremely devoted to her students." She was also "a very valued colleague and friend."
On Sunday, 400 people gathered in her native West Roxbury, Mass., for a memorial service at Temple Hillel B’nai Torah.
Reconstructionist Rabbi Barbara Penzner, who helped Coulter convert to Judaism in 1996, eulogized her as an amazing person who lit up a room with her smile and loved her job, where she helped administer a variety of undergraduate and graduate programs for American students in Jerusalem.
Raised Episcopalian, Coulter, a single woman with an easy, friendly laugh, became interested in Judaism while studying at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where she majored in history with a minor in Judaic studies.
During graduate work at the University of Denver, she became fascinated with Jewish-Christian relations, particularly Christian teaching of Judaism. She also was a teaching assistant in Holocaust studies.
"Her depth of knowledge about Jewish history put me to shame," Sugin said.
Upon her conversion, Coulter adopted Ruth as her middle name in honor of the biblical figure ó the most famous convert in Jewish history. Her master’s thesis was on the Book of Ruth. Her unfinished doctoral thesis was about the origin of anti-Semitism in early Christianity.
Rabbi Penzner said it was clear that Coulter had been on the path to Judaism for a long time. Her maternal grandmother had converted to Judaism five years before Coulter’s birth.
In 1996, Coulter studied for a year at Hebrew University, focusing on Jewish civilization. Upon returning home she took a job at the Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston. Three years later she came to New York to work for Hebrew University.
"I love and am very committed to my job promoting educational programs in Israel," Coulter recently wrote in an essay about herself.
Coulter moved to Avenue O in the center of Brooklyn, a neighborhood that in recent years has become increasingly Orthodox. That’s where she began pursuing an Orthodox conversion, said Rabbi Meir Fund, leader of the Flatbush Minyan, an Orthodox congregation.
Rabbi Fund said Coulter found him through mutual friends and regularly attended classes about observing the Sabbath and keeping kosher by Orthodox standards.
"It’s something she wanted for a variety of reasons, not the least was she probably felt that without [an Orthodox conversion] she didn’t have full legitimacy," Rabbi Fund said in an interview.
He recalled her as an "extremely bright, sensitive and very responsible person in every sense."
But when her mother became sick with cancer about two years ago, Coulter focused on traveling to Boston to take care of her.
"Since then she got lost in the shuffle," Rabbi Fund said. "I don’t believe she ever finished a halachic conversion. My shul was like her delivery room; she just didn’t get to be delivered."
Nevertheless at a Sabbath sermon, Rabbi Fund eulogized her as a "martyr for the Jewish people."
During an interview, he said it was "quite remarkable" that despite not being Jewish according to halacha (Jewish law), "she was picked out by the hand of divine providence to be a martyr for the Jewish people. It’s not a privilege people line up for. Who am I to judge her level in the scheme of things?"
Noting her academic and personal interest in interreligious studies, Rabbi Fund said, "She was a person who lived between worlds and died between worlds: between Jews and Arabs, between Israelis and Americans. She was gunned down right in the middle."
Indeed, the path Coulter chose caused her deep emotional pain, said Dr. Sara Meeus, a Belgian native who converted to Judaism with Rabbi Fund several years earlier and took Coulter under her wing after meeting her at the synagogue.
"Since I was further ahead I helped her, and I gave classes in my home where we studied the ‘Practical Guide to Kashrut,’ " Meeus said Sunday night in an interview. "I got to know her pretty well."
Meeus, a cancer researcher at New York Cornell Hospital, said Coulter wanted an Orthodox conversion when she was informed that a Conservative conversion was not recognized in Israel.
She said Coulter was "a tremendously caring person," recalling the time when she was sick and despite a fiercely cold night, Coulter walked a distance to her home to bring orange juice and make a cup of tea.
As Coulter wrote in the essay, "My friends and family are very important to me and I to them."
So when Coulter’s mother became ill, it caused her great conflict. "She wanted to pursue [Orthodox] Judaism and also go to Boston and stay with her mother, where it would not be easy" to eat kosher and observe other rituals, Meeus said. "It weighed heavily on her."
Meeus also said Coulter struggled with what to do when her mother died ó her Orthodox training taught that a Jew cannot attend a Christian church service.
"She said she would never do anything to upset or hurt her mother," Meeus said. "She was always living for another, thinking what she could do to please other people."
But when Meeus asked what she could for her friend, "she would have tears in her eyes and never speak up."
Coulter in her essay admitted to a dry and twisted sense of humor and prided herself on being a great cook. She also said that children love her, "probably because I like to play on the floor with them and their toys."
Sugin said that while Coulter was somewhat anxious about last week’s trip to Israel, the last time they spoke Coulter’s voice was "light and joyous" and "she was thrilled to be in her adopted city of Jerusalem."
- Eric J. Greenberg
- assistant director
- Janis Ruth Coulter
- University of Denver
- Rabbi Fund
- Barbara Penzner
- Sara Meeus
- Amy Sugin
- director of academic affairs
- Ocean Avenue
- Hebrew University in Jerusalem
- University of Massachusetts
- New York
- Israel News
- Staff Writer