Nearly three decades ago, a number of Jewish student activists were planning to stage a public protest in front of the offices of the Jewish Federation of New York. They were seeking funding for Jewish education and an increased emphasis on Jewish values, but John Ruskay, then a graduate student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, decided not to participate with his friends.Not because he didn’t support their cause, but because he felt it was useless to try to change the federation system. Better, he argued, to create alternative organizations. And he did, as a founder of the New York Havurah and the Coalition for Alternatives in Jewish Education, and as a supporter and member of Americans for Peace Now and the New Israel Fund, which was seen by some as a substitute for the federation system.Is it not ironic, then, that Ruskay, 53, is about to be elected to the ultimate establishment post, as top executive of UJA-Federation of New York?
In an interview in his new corner office, where Stephen Solender presided for 13 years before becoming president of United Jewish Communities, the national charity formed earlier this year, Ruskay acknowledges his dark, pinstripe suit and shows a visitor his monogrammed shirt, as if to say, “can you believe this?”But turning serious, he notes that while the setting and scope of his activism may have changed, his goals of sensitizing and strengthening the Jewish community have remained consistent throughout his career. With a doctorate from Columbia University in political science, specializing in the Mideast, he has served as educational director of the 92nd Street Y, where he helped bring more Jewish content to the institution; vice chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary; and for the last six years, one of Solender’s key officers at UJA-Federation.
“My values led me to march with Martin Luther King in Alabama in 1965, to protest the war in Vietnam, and to help lead the New York Havurah,” Ruskay said, “and when taken together, they reflect a deep commitment to the fabric of communities in which we live, and particularly the Jewish community.”That’s how Ruskay talks, at least when being interviewed — in full-bodied, articulate sentences that indicate a careful thought process and a tilt toward the language of inclusion and healing.Ruskay says he has always worked inside and outside of the establishment, from his active involvement in the Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy presidential campaigns in 1968, to his tenure at UJA-Federation.
In recent years he has led the local federation’s Jewish renaissance effort, seeking to build “caring, compassionate communities” by partnering the massive social service system with synagogues, schools and summer camps to stave off assimilation and bolster Jewish life.Ruskay’s appointment has been heralded by many within and outside of the federation system, particularly by rabbis and educators who see in him a particular sensitivity to religious life and values.
“He’s one of us,” said a prominent Conservative leader, meaning not only in terms of denominational affiliation but in Ruskay’s longstanding commitment to things Jewish beyond the social work mold of many federation execs.“There could not have been a better choice,” said Rabbi EricYoffie, head of the Reform movement. “John is smart, Jewishly rooted, knows the community exceedingly well and is sensitive to all streams, especially the progressive ones.”
Ruskay’s appointment is also seen as an indication that federation is turning inward, giving higher priority to living Jewish lives rather than “just” saving them.Wary of being too specific in setting forth his goals before being elected — the UJA-Federation board vote was scheduled for Nov. 12 — Ruskay said that on a communal level, he hopes “to work to bring the community together, though so many issues divide us, and to forge an over-arching agenda.
“We want to help change the culture from one of rancor and divisiveness to one that bridges differences,” he said.One focus will be to engage young New Yorkers, women and “middle-segment donors,” and in general to include contributors more in the grant-making decisions.
Ruskay noted that while the federation system focused on rescuing immigrants and helping support the State of Israel in the 20th century, the next challenge will be to strengthen Jewish life and create caring communities while continuing to feed the poor, care for the elderly and resettle immigrants from the former Soviet Union.Federations must become catalysts and resources, he maintains, by working with other communal agencies, including synagogues, schools and community centers, rather than competing with them. He hopes to work more closely with these institutions in making Jewish life more helpful and appealing to individuals and families.“The challenge is to strengthen Jewish life,” he said.
A product of Camp Ramah, Ruskay keeps a photo of his bunk from the summer of 1962 (including Jewish educator Jon Woocher and Conservative leader Bruce Greenfield) in a prominent spot in his office. He says the experience was transformative — his first participation in “a vibrant Jewish community” — and he has been an advocate of both formal and informal Jewish education ever since.Despite this emphasis on education and renaissance, Ruskay is well aware that dollars, and particularly the annual campaign, drive the system. Indeed, he has been an outspoken proponent of the annual campaign at a time when designated, or “boutique,” giving is seen as the wave of the future.
Fearful that such specialized philanthropy would signal the end of centralized giving, “many of us pressed the pause button and realized something precious was at stake,” Ruskay said. “Many institutions would have thrived, but the ones helping the poorest would not make it,” like food programs, aid for the elderly and the disabled.Ruskay points to the increase in the annual campaign the last several years — this year’s was $228 million, up 11 percent over the year before — as vindication for the concept of centralized giving.
“The increase,” he said, “reflects a broad recognition that the annual campaign represents an expression of klal Yisrael and a commitment to caring for those in need.”The key now, he added, is to strengthen the campaign while looking creatively to future paradigms for enhancing Jewish institutions and Jewish life.