Ruthie Schulder, co-founder and President of The Participation Agency, an experiential marketing agency, was a masterful mother and perfect hostess, cuddling her sleepy, sick toddler and making Moon Juice tonics as she gave us a tour of her newly finished townhouse in Boerum Hill and discussed her thoroughly Jewish Tri-State Area upbringing, her path to entrepreneurship, her co-parenting tips, where to find the best gluten-free fried chicken, and more.
What’s your 60-second life story?
I was born and raised in New Jersey. I went to Jewish day school my whole life. I had to wear skirts in high school, which is crazy to me. I went to summer camp my whole life. I’m one of those people who is obsessed with sleepaway camp. I went to Barnard for undergrad and, while I was there, I did a lot of study abroad programs. I went to Paris, Florence, and Australia. I did a gap year in Israel before that.
I graduated from Barnard, moved downtown, worked in the music business for two years. I started my own children’s fashion company, which got a lot of press but made very little money. While I was doing that, I got my MBA at NYU in the part-time evening program. When I graduated, I started an agency called The Participation Agency with my partner, Jessica, and I’ve been doing that for about 5 years.
What is your earliest memory?
My brother and I are very close in age – we’re only 15 months apart – so I was his punching bag growing up and I just had to do what he said. I think it made me tough. Now, we’re good friends.
Is there a story behind your name?
My mother’s brother was married to a woman who died of breast cancer when she was very young. I’m named for her: Ruth Shulamit. On one hand, it’s a really beautiful thing. On the other hand, it’s a lot of pressure to be named after somebody who was so lauded and incredible.
Our kids are both named in honor of my mother-in-law who passed away. Her name was Fern Liba and she named [my husband] Forrest, so I wanted a nature name. Libby (“my heart” in Hebrew) is Libby Fern and Erez means cedar tree in Hebrew.
How did Judaism play a role in your upbringing?
We grew up with no lights, no phone, no driving [on Shabbat], and I did that until I was in college. I went to study abroad in Australia and saw the way that Jews, specifically in Australia, lived, and that made a lot more sense to me. It’s all about tradition, family, and togetherness. It’s not about myopic laws. It was and is a much better fit for me. A bunch of friends and I traveled for 6 weeks and we were in Bangkok on Friday night and they were all going out, and I was like, “I’m gonna go, too.”
I thought to myself, “I’m in a car and it’s Shabbat but the car’s not blowing up, so I guess it’s okay.”
What did you want to be when you were a kid?
This might shock you. I was obsessed with Rupert Murdoch. I would say, “I want to be a media mogul like Rupert Murdoch.”
The more I read about him, I think, “Oh, you’re a crazy, maniacal, dishonest, bad person.”
What advice would you give to your teenage self?
Fight with my mom less. We’re very, very similar, but also really different. We’re both very strong headed.
We would fight a lot and I would cry a lot and for what? I love her, she’s my mother.
Now that I’m a mother, I would hate it if Libby spoke to me the way that I spoke to my mother.
How would you describe your personality?
I’m the definition of an Aries. Somebody once said to me, “You’re a tank that’s just trying to bulldoze life.” And that wasn’t a compliment! I’m really persistent and ambitious and I don’t take no for an answer.
On the flipside, I’m really sort of sensitive and I try to be empathetic. I’m a staunch feminist. Especially as I get older, now that I have a daughter and a son and am a young, female business owner.
We were at Passover and someone said to Erez, “Man up,” and I responded, “Don’t ever say that to him. You would never say to Libby, ‘Woman up.’”
When do you feel like the best version of yourself?
On a beach. I’m not only relaxed and healthy and happy, but that’s the time where – this is going to sound so cheesy – I look at the ocean and I think about the vastness of the world and the possibilities. Also, exercising. The endorphins make me feel amazing.
What is something you haven’t figured out yet?
Oh my God, everything.
Something I think about a lot now is that Forrest and I have two different parenting styles. Trying to figure out how to meld the two or is it okay if each parent has their own style?
What’s something that works really well for you and your husband as a team?
We’re kind of opposites, so we’re complementary. He is much more calm and patient, which can be frustrating sometimes, but, if I get riled up about something, he’s just like, “You need to chill.” I think that makes for a stronger whole.
What do you most value in your friends?
Honesty. There are some friends you call when you need the answer and the feedback. Laughter, for sure. Who are the friends you can go see a play with? The friends you can do stuff with and discover the world with.
What’s something you learned this week?
The hard work pays off. We never take time to appreciate the wins, we’re always on to the next.
What did I learn at home? Erez woke up with an eye the size of a golf ball yesterday, so I learned that that’s not always horrible, that it happens, and it can just be a virus.
What excites you about being Jewish?
I’m a New Jersey/New York Jew who still lives in this area. My whole world has been this and I like the community, the feeling of knowing so many people in the Tri-State Area.
I like Friday night, having a reason to invite people over. It’s really important to Forrest that we have people. If we don’t, he feels like we didn’t have Shabbat at all.
Wet Hot American Summer. I love that whole ethos and it’s funny and everyone’s in on the joke of the ridiculousness of what it means to be a Jew that grew up like this.
I really like being Jewish. It’s a huge part of my identity.
It informs my personality, which I don’t think everybody relates to. I wish I could get back to the unplugged for 25 hours, but I don’t actually see that happening. I think that that’s very valuable.
What makes you uncomfortable about being Jewish?
I never post about Israel on Facebook. Not because I don’t have incredibly strong feelings about it. I do. I just don’t necessarily want to get into it with people and I don’t want to know a lot of people’s opinions, because it’ll color how I feel about them and I don’t want that. Everybody’s entitled to their own opinion, and we all see it from different angles.
Something that makes me uncomfortable about being Jewish, honestly, is knowing how many very religious men are sexual abusers. It makes me sick to my stomach. I’m going to say this loudly – I think it’s an enormous issue amongst religious Jews and it’s not dealt with and it’s ruining people’s lives for generations.
Favorite writers or books?
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is my favorite writer. I’ve been obsessed with her ever since Half of a Yellow Sun, which I’m going to re-read soon. Americanah blew my mind on so many levels. It’s one of the most important books I’ve ever read. I felt awful for being a white American. Her words are like poetry. It’s about racism and it is such a powerful narrative.
My lowbrow answer to that is pasta, especially as someone who’s been gluten-free for 6 years. That’s my last wish meal. A giant, giant plate. It has to be spaghetti with tomato sauce.
Best Jewish food?
Worst Jewish food?
My dad loves ptcha – jellied calves feet – which I’ll never eat.
Did you have a bat mitzvah theme? What was it?
I didn’t have a theme, but my invitation was a poem printed on a t-shirt. There’s one thing I’m desperately missing in life, which is all of the airbrushed t-shirts you used to get. I’d love to get one of those.
Photos by Tim Gibson