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Obituary of Ronni H. Handelman: volunteer for social justice

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 15, 2011 - Ronni Handelman, a tireless volunteer for social justice causes both here and abroad, died Friday (May 13, 2011) at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. A non-smoker, Mrs. Handelman had been diagnosed with lung cancer in 2006. She was 62 and had lived in Frontenac.

Services for Mrs. Handelman will be at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, May 15, at Congregation Temple Israel.

When Mrs. Handelman received the 2009 Brotherhood/Sisterhood Award from the National Conference for Community and Justice of Metropolitan St. Louis for her volunteer work with three local organizations, the St. Louis Jewish Light reported that she said, "None of us know how much time we have here on this earth. We can use our time to make a difference."

An Ally for Justice

In 1994, when Mrs. Handelman heard a talk about a program started for young people that was designed to reinvigorate the historical alliance between Jews and African Americans, she wanted to know more. She approached the speaker and the program's founder, Karen Kalish. In short order, the two agreed to establish a similar program for high school students in St. Louis.

"I thought it was time to do something positive in St. Louis," Mrs. Handelman told the New York Amsterdam News in 2005.

It was time for Cultural Leadership.

"I couldn't have started it without Ronni's help," said Kalish, who still leads the organization. "We teach that when you see a problem, you grab an ally and get to work. Ronni was my ally. The program couldn't have been as rigorous or as thorough without her input; she saw things I didn't see."

Deeply reliant upon the shared experiences of Jews and African Americans, Cultural Leadership immerses students in a yearlong education program that includes trips to places where people died defending civil rights and sites where the atrocities of the Jewish holocaust are memorialized.

For several years, Mrs. Handelman made the trip with the students.

"She and I were roommates," Kalish recalled wistfully.

Feet First

A year after helping to found Cultural Leadership, Mrs. Handelman was moved by another speaker and another cause, this one, halfway around the world.

She heard the plea of a local nurse and humanitarian, Elsie Roth, for help for Sarajevan women who were struggling to claim their femininity in the midst of the Bosnian War for independence in the mid-'90s.

Mrs. Handelman told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that she was thinking along the lines of simply collecting small toiletries to send to Sarajevo. As it turns out, she ended up coordinating an effort, the Bosnian Relief Project St. Louis, that gathered more than a half million dollars' worth of goods, including pharmaceuticals.

"In a country torn apart by war; these women dressed beautifully and put on their make-up -- just trying to keep some normalcy in their lives," Mrs. Handelman told the Post-Dispatch. "We decided to gather up some shampoo, conditioner and lotion to send to them. Then I contacted a few people and what started out with hand lotion ended up being medical supplies!"

Her efforts were aided by her son and her husband, who was not surprised by his wife's dedication to causes.

"If an idea struck her, she really jumped in with both feet and she stuck to it," said Gary Handelman, who recently retired as an executive with California Manufacturing Co.

Monumental Impact

Her work accrued to the benefit of numerous area organizations, including The Jewish Federation of St. Louis, where Mrs. Handelman served in many top leadership positions.

"For decades, Ronni provided warm, inspired, energetic and selfless leadership to the Jewish and larger community," said Barry Rosenberg, executive vice president of Jewish Federation. "She helped people in need, advocated for social justice and inspired others to do good. Her reach was enormous and her impact was monumental."

She also served as president of the St. Louis Chapter of the American Jewish Committee, vice president of the Jewish Community Relations Council and on the boards of St. Louis Hillel and National Hillel. She chaired the Global Anti-Semitism Committee and was a member of the Jewish Federation's Lion of Judah Society and its National Women's Philanthropy Board. She was a member of Jewish Federations of North America and a Life Member of the National Council of Jewish Women.

In addition to her NCCJ award, Mrs. Handelman was named a 2007 St. Louis Woman of Achievement for Social Responsibility.

"She was a true woman of valor who should be admired and remembered for her many accomplishments," said Jean Huelsing, the chief executive officer of Living Well Foundation and a member of Mrs. Handelman's Women of Achievement class.

"I remember her thoughtfulness of reaching out to me and making me feel included. She was such an elegant woman with a special heart to match."

Mrs. Handelman also received the American Jewish Committee's Netzach Award in 2001.

Never Forget

Ronni Helene Schlutz was born in Chicago on June 20, 1948, the daughter of Esther and Foster Schlutz. She attended H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College, the women's college of Tulane University, where she met Gary Handelman, a native St. Louisan. They were married in 1968.

She completed her bachelor's degree at Washington University in 1970 and received her master's degree in social work from Washington University's George Warren Brown School of Social Work in 1980.

"She used her social work education to advocate for those less fortunate, whether they lived in St. Louis, or around the world," said her sister-in-law, Alice Handelman.

"Ronni clearly chose a volunteer path that allowed her to channel her passion of repairing the world in the most effective and meaningful ways."

Mrs. Handelman's volunteer work took her to Israel, Poland, the former Soviet Union and Germany. Following a fact-finding trip to Germany in 1996, 26 years after her first visit to the country, she wrote a Post-Dispatch op-ed column that, characteristically, ended with hope.

"I believe American Jews and Americans in general need to re-examine our feelings and prejudices about Germany. We can never forget the past, and Germany doesn't want us to, but it is time to live in the present."

Said her husband, Gary, "Ronni did a little here and a little there, so the world would be a little bit better."

Mrs. Handelman was preceded in death by her father.

In addition to her mother and her husband, Gary, Mrs. Handelman is survived by her children, Amy (Burt) Garland of St. Louis, Michael (Karen) Handelman of Phoenix and David Handelman of New York; her sister, Leslie (Melvin) Nadler of Chicago; her mother-in-law Frieda (the late Lester) Handelman of St. Louis; sisters- and brothers-in-law, Howard and Alice Handelman and Neil and Natalie Handelman, all of St. Louis, and five grandchildren: Sophia, Jason and Grant Garland, and Maya and Lila Handelman.

Visitation for Mrs. Handelman will be at 12:30 p.m., Sunday, May 15 with funeral services at 1:30 p.m., at Congregation Temple Israel, 10675 Ladue Road, in St. Louis. Burial is private.

If desired, memorials in honor of Mrs. Handelman would be appreciated to the Ronni Handelman Lung Cancer Research Fund, c/o Barnes-Jewish Hospital Foundation, 1001 Highlands Plaza Dr. West, Suite #140, St. Louis, Mo. 63110-1337.

Gloria Ross is the head of Okara Communications and the storywriter for AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service.

Gloria S. Ross is the head of Okara Communications and AfterWords, an obituary-writing and design service.