Ross was born in San Francisco and grew up in Belvedere, California. His Jewish mother and Catholic stepfather raised him in a non-religious atmosphere. Ross graduated from University of California, Los Angeles in 1970 and did graduate work there, writing a doctoral dissertation on Soviet decision-making. He became religiously Jewish after the Six-Day War. In 2002, he co-founded the Kol Shalom synagogue in Rockville, Maryland.
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