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Activist Esther Leah Ritz, Champion of the Underdog, Dies at 85

Esther Leah Ritz, the first female president of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation and a prominent figure in Jewish philanthropic and liberal causes for decades, died in a Milwaukee hospital last Friday at age 85. The cause of death was pneumonia.

At various times Ritz was president of the Jewish Community Centers Association, chair of Friends of Labor Israel, vice president of the Council of Jewish Federations and vice-chair of the Milwaukee United Way and the Wurzweiler social work school of Yeshiva University. She served on the boards of the Jewish Agency for Israel, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, CLAL and the United Jewish Appeal. At the time of her death she was on the boards of left-leaning Americans for Peace Now, the right-leaning Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, the National Jewish Democratic Council and the Shalom Hartman Institute.

“She was like a kaleidoscope, there were so many facets to her,” said her niece, Rachel Roth. “She liked to do good and cause trouble at the same time.”

Ritz was born Esther Leah Medalie in Buhl, Minn., in 1918. When she was still a young girl her mother died and Ritz and her brother and sister were sent to live with her grandmother, Sarah Lewis, an immigrant from Lithuania who was a fierce advocate of education.

After graduating summa cum laude from the University of Minnesota, Ritz entered a graduate program in political science at Duke University. The program was discontinued during World War II, and Ritz went to work for the Office of Price Administration. Transferred to Chicago, she met a young accountant named Maurice Ritz, whom she married.

Through the 1950s Ritz stayed at home with her children and helped her husband with his accounting firm, but as her children got older she began to involve herself in Jewish volunteer work. “She was always an activist,” Roth told the Forward.

She became an early proponent of Middle East peace efforts in the 1980s, was on a first-name basis with former Israeli prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres and was frequently invited to international peace conferences, her niece said.

She was also a serious collector of German expressionist art and an accomplished pianist. It was while attending an opera in Chicago that she first fell ill with the disease that felled her 10 days later.

Ritz is survived by two sons, Peter and David, her daughter Joyce, and five grandchildren.

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