The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) announced today the passing of Ralph I. Goldman, its beloved Honorary Executive Vice President, a builder of the State of Israel, and a global Jewish leader whose historic investments in Jewish life worldwide have ensured a strong, vibrant Jewish future for generations to come. Goldman, who was 100, died in Jerusalem, which had been his home for decades.
“The profound sadness and deep sense of loss we feel today is indescribable: Ralph Goldman was a giant among Jewish leaders, dedicating his life and career to strengthening Israel and to ensuring the survival and vibrancy of Jewish people and communities worldwide,” said JDC President Penny Blumenstein and CEO Alan H. Gill. “A cornerstone of JDC’s global operations for more than four decades, Ralph was an iconic and transformative figure who embodied the notion that all ‘Jews are responsible for one another’ throughout his long and extraordinary life.”
“Ralph was a mentor to us and to countless others who relied on his sage advice, flawless wisdom, and deep and abiding love for Israel and the Jewish people. From his early dedication to Zionism to his work building the Jewish State with David Ben Gurion … from his masterful guidance of JDC as it re-entered the Soviet Union to the invaluable training he gave to premiere young Jewish leaders over two decades through the JDC Entwine Ralph I. Goldman Fellowship program, Ralph infused us with spirit and purpose, and his accomplishments changed the Jewish world.”
“His passing leaves a tremendous void, but also a priceless legacy that will sustain JDC, Israel, and the Jewish world well into the future. We extend our heartfelt condolences to Ralph’s children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. May they be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem and may Ralph’s memory be for a blessing for all of us who had the privilege of knowing and learning from this towering, once-in-a-generation figure.”
Goldman, was most recently honored at JDC’s centennial celebration in Jerusalem in May where his lifelong friend, former Israei President Shimon Peres, noted: “They say a person has to decide ‘what to be’ and ‘what to do.’ What to be comes from nature. What to do comes from vision. And Ralph had a rare combination of the two.”
About Ralph I. Goldman
Ralph Irving Goldman was born in 1914 in Lechovitz, Ukraine, and immigrated to the United States with his family as a young child. He grew up in Dorchester, Massachusetts, a predominantly Jewish suburb of Boston, and attended the local public schools during the day, and a five-day-week Hebrew school in the late afternoons.
During his junior high years, Goldman began to study at the Boston Hebrew College, which exposed its students to a rigorous program of Hebrew language and Jewish culture. Goldman spoke frequently of the immense influence upon him by the founder and director of the college, Louis Hurwich. Goldman claimed that his own love for Jewish culture, his commitment to the unity of the Jewish people, and his ability to look at the Jewish people in a non-denominational way were inspired by Hurwich.
Involved local Zionist activities as a young man, Goldman entered an essay contest sponsored by a student Zionist organization in 1937. His essay on Stalin’s idea of a so-called “homeland for the Jews” in Birobidzhan (Siberia) won the contest, and Goldman was awarded a fellowship to spend a year in Palestine, later to become the State of Israel. He often recounted how profoundly his stay in Palestine impacted his thinking and his emotions for the rest of his life. He saw his work on a kibbutz, his assistance in establishing a community, and even his paving a road as fulfillment of the Zionist philosophy he had absorbed in Boston, and as prelude to his life’s work of helping to build the State of Israel.
Back in Boston, Goldman studied at the School of Social Work at Boston University and Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Science, obtaining a bachelor’s degree in education and master’s in social work.
He served in the U.S. Army from 1942 till 1945 – first in the United States, then in England, and finally, at the conclusion of World War II, in Germany. In this posting, Goldman was assigned to assist Jews in Displaced Persons Camps, an experience to which he attributed the inspiration to devote his life to helping the Jewish people.
Goldman was the recipient of numerous honorary degrees and awards over his lifetime, including the French Legion of Honor. He was, however, proudest of the Ralph I. Goldman Fellowship program established by the JDC Board of Directors in 1987, where he eagerly mentored a new generation of communal leaders, reveling in their achievements. Today the annual paid, professional opportunity – part of JDC Entwine’s young adult movement – offers young Jews the chance to live and work in several overseas locations where JDC is active, providing an inside look at JDC’s global operations though individualized assignments. Until his death, Goldman served as a mentor to each of the 27 fellows since the program’s founding.
Ralph was predeceased by his beloved wife, Helen, and by his son, David Ben-Rafael, a senior Israeli diplomat killed in the March 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Argentina.
Known in Israel for his lifetime of accomplishments in creating the Jewish State, Goldman was active in the New York operation of the pre-State Jewish army, the Haganah. Goldman helped to buy and lease airplanes and ships to transport immigrants from war-ravaged Europe to Palestine, and assisted in the effort to recruit personnel for the nascent army. It was as part of this work that Goldman met Teddy Kollek, later to become the iconic mayor of Jerusalem, and began a life-long relationship that was both professional and personal.
Goldman’s was also a close confidant and advisor to David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister. He first met Ben-Gurion in 1949, and became his representative at the Israel consulate in New York. In 1951, Ben-Gurion put Goldman in charge of the Prime Minister’s first visit to the U.S. as head of state. That tour successfully completed, Kollek (who had become the Director-General of the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem) invited Goldman back to Israel to head the Technical Assistance Department, the coordinating body in Israel of the U.S. “Point Four” program, which provided American know-how and funding to emerging countries.
Thus he became a unique phenomenon in the history of Israel: a U.S. citizen representing an American program and at the same time a senior civil servant in Israel’s young government. During Goldman’s tenure in that position, Israel received technical assistance from American high-level experts in many fields, and was awarded related grants amounting to $40 million.
When “Point Four” came to a close, Goldman relocated back to New York, first as the Executive Director of the American-Israel Cultural Foundation (AICF), which aimed to expose Americans to a broad spectrum of Israel’s cultural figures. In this position, Goldman coordinated the efforts of senior Israeli government officials, American-Jewish philanthropists, competing cultural institutions and aspiring artists.
Among the talented youth that he granted scholarship for studying the U.S. was a young Tel-Aviv violinist named Itzhak Perlman. They remained life-long friends and Perlman often supported philanthropic ventures of JDC, Goldman’s later employer. As a person of high culture, Goldman was seen as well suited to the task, convincing his board of directors to begin funding the nascent Israel Museum, which became Israel’s prime museum center.
Following his tenure at the AICF, Goldman was recruited to head a new dream of Ben Gurion: the Israel Education Fund, which, as an arm of the United Jewish Appeal, had the goal of establishing a network of educationally-excellent high schools in Israel. Successful in raising $28 million in four years for this cause, in 1968 Goldman had his first involvement with JDC and was invited to become the Associate Director of its Israel operation.
So he relocated, once again, to Israel, this time to begin a period of work with JDC which would see Goldman founding its department charged with caring for Israel’s elderly, establishing a chain of community centers across Israel, creating major innovations in early childhood care, as well as being instrumental in setting up two research units which helped JDC to target its work more efficiently, as a result of research on needs and how to meet them. In 1976, Goldman moved back to New York to become the chief executive of JDC. He served twice in this position, from 1976 until 1985, and again from 1986 until 1988.
As JDC’s professional leader, Goldman was best known for initiating and overseeing JDC’s re-entry into most of Eastern Europe, where it had been active in the early part of the 20th century, and re-establishing in the mid-1980s a strong Jewish presence in a region where Jews and Judaism were decimated by Nazism and then barred under Communism. In 1979, he persuaded Hungary’s Communist regime to allow JDC to assist elderly Jews, but soon expanded JDC’s aid to Jews of all ages. JDC also provided a Jewish connection to this community, initiating a summer camp for Jewish kids, the first of its kind under Communism.
In December 1981, Goldman traveled to Warsaw to negotiate with the Polish government for JDC access to help the country’s remnant Jewish community. On the tarmac he faced army tanks and armed soldiers and a U.S. embassy representative advising him to turn back as General Yaruzelsky had just declared a military emergency. Undeterred, Goldman continued to his hotel, met the Polish government official in a diner and the two signed a cooperative agreement on a napkin at the end of the meal.
Subsequently Goldman led sensitive negotiations with Soviet leaders, successfully navigating JDC’s return to what became the former Soviet Union almost immediately after the fall of Communism. These negotiations enabled JDC to address the massive needs, both material and spiritual, of Jews – including hundreds of thousands of poor elderly and children – who had suffered under Communist rule.
The life-sustaining assistance and Jewish connections that we help to provide today to that region’s million plus Jews are a testament to Goldman’s vision and determination, as are the leadership training and regional initiatives that he launched or inspired in Latin America and Europe and the ties he solidified with more isolated Jewish communities in North Africa and India. Goldman also pioneered JDC’s role as an effective instrument of the world Jewish community in responding to global disasters and supporting development needs.
In 2012, Goldman granted an interview focusing on the sensitive negotiations. He was asked how, without formal diplomatic training, he had the courage and subtlety to interact successfully with these high officials, who were not necessarily noted for their sympathy to Jews. Goldman answered: “I was representing the Jewish People. I couldn’t afford to fail.”
The funeral will be held tomorrow (Wednesday) at 10:00 a.m. in Jerusalem at the Har Hamenuhot Cemetery in Givat Shaul
Condolence messages have been flowing in to us, here is just one – from Limmud FSU:
Ralph Goldman – a Giant among Men
Limmud FSU (former Soviet Union) mourns, together with the whole House of Israel, the death of Ralph Goldman at the age of 100 at his home in Jerusalem.
Ralph Goldman was a legend in his own long lifetime. His influence and personal involvement covered virtually every aspect of Jewish communal life. His sprightly and articulate presence, his immaculately-dressed figure with its ever-present bow tie, was a fixture in every major event of Jewish social service in his role as Honorary Vice-President of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (the “Joint”) for many years. He was also of enormous help when Limmud FSU was established in 2006 to bring Jewish culture, education, tradition and identity, to thousands of Russian-speaking Jews across the world, but especially those in the countries which for 70 long years under Communism had been deprived of the right to study, learn and even to partake in Jewish communal, traditional and religious life.
Limmud FSU, together with the Jewish community of Belarus celebrated his 100th birthday as part of the opening gala celebrations at the beginning of a Limmud FSU conference held in Vitebsk, just a few weeks ago. Hundreds of Russian-speaking Jews attended the gala opening and heard a message from Ralph from his Jerusalem home, as reported by the JTA. “It is a great honor for me, that my service, which has always been very gratifying but not always easy, is remembered in this way by Jews attending Limmud FSU, which is a big development in the region.”
Ralph Goldman was himself born in the Soviet Union (Ukraine) which may have explained his interest in Limmud FSU. Chaim Chesler, founder of Limmud FSU said, “Ralph Goldman was an archetypal “Man for all Seasons” a Jewish patriot in the widest sense of the word and a man whose contribution to so many Jewish social concerns was perhaps unparalleled in our generation. He will be sorely missed, but his mission and work will be remembered for a very long time to come.”