With glasses perched on her nose and preschoolers gathered at her feet, the volunteer known affectionately as “Grandma Ruth” began to read.
Nursery rhymes tumbled out of the centenarian’s mouth while the eager children hung on her every word.
The youngsters have become accustomed to Tuesday morning story times. Each week, Temple Israel’s eldest congregant visits all seven of the Minneapolis synagogue’s early childhood classes.
“I wanted to do some good,” Ruth Knelman said. “People are so involved in their own lives. You can’t be all for yourself.”
When she finished the picture book, the 108-year-old slowly pushed herself up from the couch and waved goodbye.
“I’m getting old,” quipped Knelman, a petite woman with perfectly coifed white hair and champagne-colored nails.
But she isn’t slowing down.
The lifelong altruist splits her time between Temple Israel and the nearby Jefferson Community School, where she reads to kindergartners and helps teachers hand out snacks. Her mission of volunteerism began 65 years ago, when she, her late husband and young son moved to Minneapolis from North Dakota.
Knelman, one of the oldest living Minnesotans — the oldest is believed to be 111-year-old Evelyn Kleine of St. Anthony — is still able-bodied and sharp. She lives alone in the two-bedroom apartment near Lake Bde Maka Ska she’s had for more than 40 years, plays bridge every Saturday and occasionally teaches fellow congregants how to make her famous matzo ball soup.
Her son, Kip Knelman, 69, says she’s in such good health that he often forgets just how old she is. “At her age, it’s incomprehensible that she can do everything that she does,” he said.
Knelman was born in New York on May 21, 1910 — two years before the Titanic sank, four years before the start of WWI and 10 years before women won the right to vote. “I wanna live forever, but I know it’s not possible,” she said.
Of course, everyone asks for her secret to longevity.
“I do everything wrong,” she said with a throaty chuckle. “You won’t find anything diet or healthy in my house.”
Knelman also admitted that she doesn’t exercise or drink much water, but she does enjoy coffee and scotch. Those who know her best say her mind-set — along with good genes — may be the keys.
“A lot of people worry, especially about things they can’t control,” said son Kip. “My mom doesn’t get too stressed over anything. She just really enjoys life.”
Raised in Winnipeg, Knelman eventually wed a schoolmate named Edward. They moved to the United States for his job as a traveling salesman and she became a homemaker. While Kip was away playing with friends, Knelman made time to get out and volunteer around town.
Over the years, her connection with the local Jewish community granted her additional opportunities to help others. She hopped three buses to volunteer at Mount Sinai Hospital in Minneapolis until the day it closed in 1991. A contact there eventually led her to Jefferson, where she’s served for more than three decades.
During her afternoon visits, Knelman strictly enforces good manners. “She’s not a pushover,” said kindergarten teacher Christine Sedesky. “When she passes out snacks, the kids must respond with ‘yes, please’ or ‘no, thank you.’”
Meanwhile, Temple Israel had become her second home. It was where she could practice her faith and share her love of home cooking, which she calls a lost art. Through a series of small classes in the synagogue kitchen, Knelman taught women how to make traditional Jewish cuisine, from a brisket to noodle kugel.
Though the courses have ended, she still delights friends and relatives with her specialties. Knelman says she’d love to work for a catering company. “No one in the world would hire me at this age,” she said with a sigh.
But Knelman gets her greatest satisfaction from reading to tots in the classroom. Generations have grown up before her eyes and brought their own children back for story time.
Knelman boasts that she remembers something about every child — then giggled when she recalled calling Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman’s now grown daughter, Rebecca, “my little matzo ball.”
As the first female rabbi in the synagogue’s history, Zimmerman initially faced resistance from some older congregants, including Knelman. But Knelman’s views evolved. Over the last 30 years, the two women have become close friends.
“We take care of her,” Zimmerman said. Fellow worshipers make sure Knelman has rides to Shabbat services, where she has a designated seat in the second row of the sanctuary.
“She shows up,” Zimmerman said, praising Knelman’s unyielding devotion to her faith and her students. “That’s what it means to be part of a community.”
On a recent Tuesday morning, Knelman shuffled from classroom to classroom on her weekly pilgrimage to the Early Childhood Center at Temple Israel, where she was met with enthusiastic greetings of “Hiya, Grandma Ruth!”
Knelman nestled into a corner rocking chair and beckoned a gaggle of 5-year-olds to sit on a colorful rug at her feet. After an animated reading of a book about helpers, she closed the text and lay her hands in her lap. “You know what?” she cooed. “Everybody helps me.”
The teacher excitedly shot back, “But you help everyone else!”
Grandma Ruth grinned.