Meet JSPAN Board Member Ruth Damsker

Author: 
Edward Hoffman

- What do you do for a living?

Right now I’m retired, but for 20 years I was fortunate to be an elected public official.  I’m a social worker by background, so before that I worked for a few years at the Pennsylvania Hospital in the ob-gyn clinic.

- You were my County Commissioner when I lived in Montgomery County.  What was that job like?

Initially I started out in local government.  For three terms I was the tax collector in Cheltenham Township, and I was responsible for collecting $64 million.  I was the first Democrat and the first woman.  I was given the title of Cheltenham Township Finance Officer, and it sounded much better at cocktail parties than tax collector.

Toward the end of my third term as tax collector, I was fortunate to be asked by the Democratic Party to run for County Commissioner.  I wanted to be in a policy-making position, to try to make a difference in people’s lives.  At that time the County was very Republican, and the Democrat was the minority Commissioner.  It’s a very big county and, while people knew me in Cheltenham Township, no one knew me in Pottstown or Norristown, so I really campaigned very hard.  Then unfortunately, while I was running for this office, my husband was diagnosed with cancer.  He had been a radiation oncologist, so he knew he didn’t have a chance.  I made the decision, and he encouraged me, to continue to run for the office; and he was right: once he died, it was my savior to have that job. 

It was a wonderful job.  Since there are only three Commissioners, you have to convince only one other person in order to get something done, which doesn’t happen in Washington or Harrisburg.  I learned that the County is responsible for all the Human Services – a $300 million budget.  My colleagues weren’t interested in it.  It wasn’t the glamorous part of the job, but it was an ideal focus for me.  I saw that all those departments were in silos.  I worked on that for my two terms – eight years - and started this collaborative board that increased access to services and was beneficial to the clients receiving the services. 

- What is your Jewish background?

I’ve been a member of Adath Jeshurun since I was 6.  I was not a bat mitzvah – girls were not “bat-mitzvahed” then.  I was confirmed.  I have three sons and a daughter, and I was very actively involved in the synagogue.  They were all b’nai mitzvah and confirmed at AJ.  In fact, we have the pictures on the wall – my sister and brother and I and my kids.  I’m still a member, but not as active as I used to be.

When I was 16, I went to Israel for six weeks through Young Judea.  That was before the ’67 war.  We actually spent time in Sde Boker which was Ben-Gurion’s kibbutz.  We picked peaches in the desert, and it was really an incredible experience. 

I was very involved with American Jewish Congress.  I was on the Board – we had our own chapter in the Elkins Park area.  And then it seemed that nationally, American Jewish Congress became very conservative, and Jeff Pasek, Ruth Laibson and others started JSPAN and I was invited to be a part of it.  I felt like I was the only non-lawyer on the Board originally. 

- Are there particular progressive causes that interest you?

I can’t listen to the news anymore; it breaks my heart.  Women’s reproductive rights have always been very important to me.  Education is huge, because I believe education is the greatest equalizer for kids today.  And guns.  It’s really disturbing.  I’m upset for my grandchildren.  When my kids went to school, I never thought twice that they wouldn’t be safe.  I don’t understand why the public elects people who are not interested in serving the public good; they just want to keep their job, they get good benefits, and they’ll say or do anything.

- When you are not thinking about JSPAN, what other interests do you have?

I’m on the Board of Nashira, a Jewish choral group.  I just cycled off Philadelphia Reads, in the city.  I’m also on Caring People Alliance, affiliated with Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs – for underprivileged kids.  Somehow, being retired, I seem to be busier; I managed to overbook myself.  I have six grandchildren, aged from 3 to 10 – five of whom live in the area.  It’s great, but the sad thing is that my husband never saw a grandchild.

-What book is on your night table?

Actually, yesterday I just got Sisters in Law: How Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World.  I’m looking forward to reading it.