By MARTA HEPLER DRAHOS
TRAVERSE CITY — Ruth Gruber led an extraordinary life in extraordinary times.
In 1931, when she was just 20, the Brooklyn-born daughter of Jewish immigrants became the youngest person to earn a doctorate from the University of Cologne in Germany. Later she was a pioneering journalist whose subjects included Holocaust survivors, Arctic explorers, inmates off Stalin's gulags and Virginia Woolf.
Gruber's life is documented in the film "Ahead of Time," which will be presented by Traverse City synagogues Temple Beth El and Congregation Ahavat Shalom at 3 p.m. Sept. 30 at InsideOut Gallery. It was directed by Bob Richman, director of the Oscar-winning "An Inconvenient Truth" with Al Gore, and made its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival.
"It's stunning," said Ellen Fivenson, a member of both synagogues and co-chairman of the program. "The filmmakers do a masterful job of going back and forth between her stories and pictures and writings, and historical footage."
The synagogues are putting on the program with the help of a "Bat Mitzvah Year Mini-Grant" from Hadassah Foundation, which works to improve the status, health and well-being of women and girls in the U.S. and Israel.
"I was looking for something so that the synagogues can see there's something besides services and adult education. We need to enrich our offerings to bring young people in," said Fivenson, who learned of the film in an e-letter from the Hillel Foundation, a vibrant Jewish student organization on the University of Michigan campus. "But it speaks to all young women and their mentors, from parents and grandparents to teachers. It transcends the Jewish community in a way because it shows how one woman can break out of her known territory and go far beyond with her talent and her scope."
Retired Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Elizabeth Weaver said Gruber's story parallels her own in "the desire to do something and the encouragement to do it and people who helped you along the way."
"It was very inspiring and I felt a kinship with that story because I had parents who encouraged me to the best I could be," said Weaver, of Glen Arbor, one of three women leaders from the area who will make up a discussion panel following the screening. "And when I went to school they didn't expect me to get an Mrs."
Weaver said when she attended law school in the early 1960s there were only a handful of women in her class. The same held true when she was appointed a judge.
"Chief Justice Mary Coleman mentored me. She was the first female judge on the Michigan Supreme Court," she said.
Weaver will react to the film and share her story along with Mary Raymer, a former social worker and chair of National Hospice in Washington, D.C., and Chris MacInnes, Chief operating Officer for Crystal Mountain Resort. Moderator Marsha Forseman, a corrections consultant and former Special Assistant to the Director of the Michigan Department of Corrections, will lead a Q&A session with the audience.
"Each one of these ladies has a similar pathway (to Gruber's)," Fivenson said. "They've charged through life in a way."
The program is free and features a Horizon Books display of some of Gruber's 13 books, many of which are out of print.
Following the program the film DVD will be donated to the Traverse Area District Library for patrons to view at home, Fivenson said.