Redefining Community and Philanthropy: The Legacy of John Ruskay

by Andrés Spokoiny

It would be tempting to view John Ruskay’s legacy at CEO and Executive Vice President of UJA-Federation of New York by the numbers.

After all, he’s been at the helm of one the world’s largest Jewish philanthropy, with $291 million in revenue in 2013. All told, UJA has raised more than $3 billion during his 15-year tenure, which ends June 30.

But the story of a Federation leader is told not only by dollars raised but by lives changed; by realities improved and hopes restored. On that account, John’s legacy is one of outstanding success. He redefined the meaning of community in a time of rampant individualism.

From a personal perspective, I have the honor to count myself as John’s friend and mentee. When I was a young Federation director, John shared with me his experience and wisdom. He did so in a unique way that mixed professional advice and personal empathy. I remember when, as every Federation director who goes on the cocktail party circuit, I started to gain weight, John looked at me with his warm grin and asked: “Are you taking care of yourself?” That is John’s way: brilliance with a human touch.
But it is now, as head of the Jewish Funders Network, that I see the magnitude of John’s contribution. JFN worked closely with UJA over the years in showcasing the principle that community and private philanthropy are two sides of the same coin, and that both sectors can work together in a mutually beneficial way. John realized that when philanthropy grows, we all benefit; that independent philanthropy can be synergistic with the federated system and that the force of the collective doesn’t exclude the creativity of the individual.

Under John’s stewardship, UJA took on leadership roles on issues far beyond New York. Thus, it became a critical partner of JFN in initiatives, like Jewish Renewal in Israel, which have an impact on the entire Jewish world.

John is a thought leader with whom I enjoyed sharing ideas and debating the big issues affecting the Jewish world. And if sometimes we were both scorned as being “too intellectual,” I learned from and with John that the times we face demand new ways of thinking and innovative ideas. I only hope his departure from UJA, while sad, allows him to devote more time to think strategically and systemically about the adventure of being Jewish in the 21st century.

Above all, John shared with me his contagious love for all things Jewish and his relentless commitment to community as a cornerstone of the Jewish Experience.

For that, and much more, I’ll always be grateful.

Andrés Spokoiny is President and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network.