Our Years of Ralph

Ralph meeting with the PresenTense team in Jerusalem, October 2010; photo PresenTense.
Ralph meeting with the PresenTense team in Jerusalem, October 2010; photo PresenTense.

By Aharon Horwitz

There’s no way that we could not have met Ralph Goldman. In retrospect, it seems obvious: the days and evenings between 2008 and 2013, when Ralph would visit PresenTense, were destined by a higher power that saw fit to bridge two kindred generations.

After all, more than anything those of us in the founding generation of PresenTense, and before that the Creative Zionist Circle, longed for the moral power and intellectual resourcefulness of those turn-of the century giants, the Zionist rebels like Katznelson, Ahad Ha’am, Jabotinsky, and the Jewish seers like Kaplan, Buber, and Rawidowicz. We diligently read their essays, debated their arguments, and reproduced their works online. We did it in formal sessions in the evenings, and in impromptu talks late into the night. In New York, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv, we collated essays and collected books and sought messages in their literary bottles, looking to inspire a new generation of community, creativity, and pioneering.

Thus it was surreal to look out the front window of PresenTense Global HQ on Emek Refaim, say in the summer of 2008, and see the taxi pull up. The door would open. Out would thrust a cane, and then a foot, and then a hand with a blackberry, the letters so large they were visible even from 15 feet up. Ralph would emerge, and by that time someone would be downstairs to greet him. In he would walk and transform the room with the spirit of those days, and that generation. Waves of history like a warp disruption field surrounded him. This was at first, when it would become clear that he knew Ussishkin, hustled for the Haganah in Europe, and improvised the Jewish State’s first United Nations stationary on a hotel notepad. But then quickly came the next wonder, which is that Ralph had that uncanny ability to relate to the infinite optimism and see-no-boundries pioneering spirit of young people. He had an amazing smile.

The time we spent with Ralph was never too long. He’d tell a few stories, we’d have a few questions. Many of the special moments took place in short side conversations, or emails he’d send that showed – like a great educator or mentor – that he thought deeply about our vision, and cared more about our tactics than we’d have ever dared to hope. Sometimes he’d spend a few hours sitting in the main space of PresenTense, absorbing and being absorbed. It’s not by accident that the Zionist greats – people of intellect, of organization, of words – spent a huge amount of their time founding and investing in youth movements. They had in them the desire to inspire, and to be inspired. And youth don’t take to pompousness, and they don’t take to know-it-all-ness. They take to a person that wants to be touched as much as he wants to touch. This isn’t something one puts on, it’s something that one is.

Ralph Goldman planted thousands of seeds in his lifetime, and in 100 years saw many of them grow to fruition. Looking at the history of Israel, at institutions and movements like the JDC, the Matnasim, the Taub Center, the JDC’s efforts in Eastern Europe and behind the iron curtain, Malben, the Ethiopian Aliyah, one can see the lasting imprint of Ralph’s contributions. He always had an American Zionist quality about him, a perspective that was pluralistic and deeply committed at once to Jewish self-determination and liberal democracy. He acted boldly but with modesty.

Truly special personalities – the great yet unselfish – have that way about them. The stage of history is not too big for them, but the connections they love most are the personal. The curious minds, the open hearts. They sweep into a room, and like a sticky molecule interact and leave behind something different, yet so much more powerful. We were a generation of young people waiting for someone like Ralph, and open to who he was. Ralph became a real part of our DNA in those years, and a strong pulse in the beating heart of our little movement. We’re forever blessed, among thousands of others, by his presence.

We’ll miss him, and his authenticity. He was a glowing ember of the Jewish People’s eternal flame.

Aharon Horwitz is the co-founder and a serving board member of the PresenTense Group and currently CEO of 40Nuggets, a Jerusalem-based tech company helping small businesses succeed around the world.