Ralph Goldman twice retired from his role as executive vice president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, but up until the last few weeks of his life, he was still working, going to his office at JDC Israel almost every day. Mr. Goldman, the JDC’s honorary executive vice president died in Jerusalem on Tuesday morning at age 100, after a lifetime of service and passionate allegiance to the Jewish people.
“Ralph Goldman was a man who combined greatness with humility,” JDC CEO Alan H. Gill told The Jewish Week. “This man’s endeavors and achievements, if you look at them one after the other are nothing short of astounding, and yet he never used the word ‘I.’ He was all about the Jewish people.”
Margy-Ruth Davis, a friend of decades, recalls that when a major philanthropist asked Mr. Goldman to come and work for him, Mr. Goldman declined. “I’m a civil servant of the Jewish people,” he said.
Mr. Goldman was an energetic, optimistic, visionary leader more often behind the scenes than out front. He was a natural diplomat and beloved mentor who over his long career advanced social justice, social welfare, Jewish culture and education. He walked for many decades with a spring in his step, easily recognized by his white hair and bow tie.
“He was an idealist, with no self-promotion. Never for himself, only for Israel and the Jewish people,” Elie Wiesel told The Jewish Week.
Born in Ukraine, Mr. Goldman grew up in a suburb of Boston. As a student at Boston Hebrew College, he won a scholarship in 1938 to spend a year in Palestine; the year influenced him deeply. Later he completed his studies at Boston University and Harvard, and then served in the U.S. Army from 1942 to 1945.
At the end of the war, while waiting to be demobilized, he volunteered to help displaced persons in Marseille. There, he taught Hebrew and made his first contacts with the Haganah. Back in New York, Mr. Goldman assisted the Haganah in its arms purchasing operations in the U.S., working at Hotel 14, the Haganah’s clandestine headquarters at 14 E. 60th St. (Mr. Goldman was later instrumental in having New York City erect a plaque out front.) There he met Teddy Kollek, who would become a lifelong friend.
Mr. Goldman later served in Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s office, helped establish The Israel Museum and accompanied Ben-Gurion when he visited the U.S. He headed the American-Israel Cultural Foundation and the Israel Education Fund. In 1969, Mr. Goldman began working at the JDC and became executive director in 1976, navigating the JDC’s reentry into most of Eastern Europe. Later, he also rejuvenated JDC efforts in the Soviet Union as well as Ethiopia.
When Mr. Goldman would tell stories of those days, he’d mention lifting an ashtray on the coffee shop table while having a conversation with a colleague to find a hidden microphone, repeatedly being followed, and once having to tear up and swallow his notes so that airport officials wouldn’t seize them. And he would say there were still stories he couldn’t tell.
I once interviewed Teddy Kollek about his friend and he used the Hebrew expression, “One person benefits, no one loses,” to characterize Mr. Goldman’s style. “He knows to always leave something on the table for his negotiating partner, so that everyone leaves the room feeling that they achieved something. He’s one of the few people I know with friends and admirers in governments around the world — these are mostly people he’s at one time sat across from at a negotiating table.”
Mr. Goldman and his late wife Helen raised two daughters and a son, back and forth between the U.S. and Israel. Their son David was killed in the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, where he was a senior diplomat. Mr. Goldman is survived by his daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
At home in both Israel and America, Mr. Goldman ultimately made Jerusalem his home. Asher Ostrin, senior executive for international affairs who saw him almost every day in the JDC’s Jerusalem office, said that in his travels around the world, Mr. Goldman always made a point of sitting down with young people. “They had a common language,” Ostrin said. “He had great faith that the younger generation was going to move the Jewish people forward.”
To honor his illustrious career, in 1987, the JDC established the Ralph Goldman Fellowship. Every year, young people are selected to work abroad for the JDC as fellows, with training in the New York office as well as hands-on fieldwork in foreign countries.
For Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz “Ralph Goldman was much more than the 'emeritus vice president' of the JDC. In the many years of his active leadership, and more time as the emeritus leader he was the model personality of the JDC, influencing not only those who replaced him, but very many people who worked for the JDC." He continued, “He was courageous and daring, but never restless. With great personal charm,and a talent for friendship.”
Amir Shaviv, assistant executive vice president for special operations at the JDC, remembers the sensitive and devoted friend. “For 28 years we were a bit like father son, a bit like close contemporaries, despite the decades separating our ages.”
Shaviv says that the private Ralph loved to tell stories. Mr. Goldman may be the only person who played poker games with David Ben-Gurion (“The two were on a boat sailing back to Israel, BG was bored — so Ralph taught him the game and played with him, making sure to lose often …”)
I remember an iconic photograph hanging in his New York office, with Mr. Goldman helping Ben-Gurion put on his coat: It’s classic Mr. Goldman, a courtly gentleman of strength and tenderness, loyal without pretension. His bookshelves included volumes of the Talmud, the Encyclopedia Judaica, Salo Baron’s “History of the Jews” and other works in Hebrew, Russian and English.
Also on his shelf were two open, active files, dedicated to unresolved issues: The 1992 terrorist bombing in Argentina that took the life of his son David, and the 1967 murder of one of his JDC predecessors, Charles Jordan, in Czechoslovakia. He wouldn’t let these matters rest. He didn’t seek revenge, but justice.
When Mr. Goldman’s 2001 biography, “I Seek My Brethren,” was being prepared, I had the pleasure of working with him, trying to get the understated hero to talk more about himself. The book is long ago published, and, happily, we kept the warm conversation going. His memory is already a blessing.