U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was hailed as a beacon and an icon at a gala in her honor Thursday, drawing lots of love from a crowd of a few hundred at the National Museum of American Jewish History.
“What a treat for me this evening has been,” said Ginsburg, who was being inducted into the museum’s Only in America Hall of Fame gallery, joining the likes of Irving Berlin, Estée Lauder, Gertrude Elion, and Leonard Bernstein. “It has been pure joy for me.”
“Ruth Bader Ginsburg quite simply changed the way the world is for American women, and she did it before she became a Supreme Court justice,” Nina Totenberg, NPR correspondent and Ginsburg’s longtime friend, said as she introduced the justice, whom she described as “incredibly hardworking, undeterred, unafraid, as well as generous and kind.”
The award and gallery recognize the achievements of American Jews. Ginsburg is the first Jewish woman to serve on the Supreme Court.
“Ruth Ginsberg is quite simply the sister all of us hope to have, and in some ways, she has been the ultimate sister to us all,” Totenberg said.
The 86-year-old justice, who has become an icon often referred to by her fans as “RBG,” spoke for just under 10 minutes. She received multiple standing ovations.
“The demand for justice runs through the entirety of Jewish tradition,” Ginsburg said, referencing remarks she previously wrote for the American Jewish Committee. For the entirety of her term on the court, she said, “I hope ... I will have the strength and the courage to remain steadfast in the service of that demand.”
The justice cited other female Jewish thinkers who she said inspired her work, including Emma Lazarus, whose famous poem is inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty.
“It bears recalling her words and the immigration policy they call for: ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free,’” Ginsburg said.
Ginsburg was hospitalized with a brief illness in November and had surgery for lung cancer and treatment for pancreatic cancer this year. At an event in Washington on Tuesday, she said she was “feeling fine.”
The day before, the justice received the $1 million Berggruen Prize, which recognizes those whose ideas “have profoundly shaped human understanding and advancement.” She said she will donate the money to charities and nonprofits.
In front of a few hundred people gathered in an upstairs ballroom for the sold-out event — it was “pretty much like getting Bruce Springsteen tickets,” said attendee Terri Grossman — Ginsburg was honored with speakers, a video tribute, and an opera performance
“She has made our nation a better nation, our society more just and equal,” said Lyn M. Ross, who with her late husband drove the campaign to create the museum, as she presented the award.
Coming the day after President Donald Trump was impeached by the House of Representatives, Ginsberg’s appearance was symbolic of liberal values and feminist hope for some in the audience.
“Everything she stands for is what this country should stand for,” said Gilah Lewis Sietz, 61, of Cherry Hill, as she waited for Ginsburg to take the stage. “I don’t think we can assign any more importance to her than at this moment in history, especially after yesterday.”
At the museum, “Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” a traveling exhibit based on the book of the same name, runs through Jan. 12.
“Next to the opening night of the museum, this is the most exciting,” said Gwen Goodman, founding executive director. “We’re just so thrilled; I can’t even express it in words how I feel.”