Let’s face it. John Ruskay is a tough act to follow.
The CEO and executive vice president of UJA-Federation of New York, the largest local charity in the world, is stepping down at the end of June, after 15 years in his post, having built and solidified a reputation as a leader in his field. He has successfully combined intellect, passion, compassion, managerial skills, innovation and a strong Jewish sense of peoplehood and collective responsibility. Those qualities define his vision and the institution he has led.
Faced with the challenge of finding a worthy successor, the board of UJA-Federation chose Eric Goldstein, 54, a prominent Wall Street attorney with 25 years of experience as a highly active lay leader at the charity and a range of other Jewish causes. Within hours of his being tapped last week the choice was being sharply criticized by some communal professionals as “a tsunami” for their field, especially those working their way up the professional ladder in the North American federation system. The decision to hire “outside” the system was described by eJewish Philanthropy, a respected online publication, as a deep blow to the morale of those Jewish professionals concerned about the limits of their own career goals.
But as one UJA-Federation board member told The Jewish Week, “We weren’t making a statement about the system. We were looking for the best person for the job.”
Based on Goldstein’s record, reputation and remarks in an exclusive interview with The Jewish Week (see Page 1), we can see why he was chosen. He spoke of his goal to help make New York Jewry a stronger kehillah, a sacred community with a shared purpose, by reaching out to all segments, including his Modern Orthodox peers, who he views as “under-represented” at the UJA-Federation table.
That segment may play a more vital role in the future as a bridge between the haredi and “no religion” extremes of New York Jewry, bolstering the diminishing “middle” of Conservative and Reform supporters of federation.
In addition, Goldstein said he was deeply concerned about the weakening of Jewish identity and affiliation, and committed to reversing the trend.
“We need more and better-educated Jews,” he said, and that means providing “content deep enough to inspire young people looking for meaning in their lives.”
That message should resonate with all concerned about a promising Jewish future, and how to get there.
In addition, professional and lay colleagues describe in superlatives Goldstein’s wisdom and ability to listen to and work with others, as well as his deep commitment to Jewish life. The fact that as a volunteer he put in countless hours in a lay leadership capacity at UJA-Federation for many years while working at a top law firm attests to that commitment. As one professional who worked closely with him told us, Goldstein’s “absolutely tireless” devotion to the charity “made the professionals work even harder.”
The fact that Goldstein has been in the glare of the spotlight from the moment he was chosen is a fitting, if not warm, welcome to organized Jewish life in the trenches. It underscores why so many leave the field, bruised from the infighting and, at times, lack of respect. That he is willing to join the fray after years of working for the community without remuneration is a sign either of naiveté or idealism. And we don’t think he’s naïve.