A legendary Jewish figure died this week.
A month after he turned 100, Ralph Goldman passed away in Jerusalem, where he had resettled after he retired 26 years ago as executive vice president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the New York-based international humanitarian organization that also marks its centennial this year. (See Appreciation on page 33.)
Goldman lived a life of service whose arc described the events that shaped Jewish history for the last seven decades. Born in the Ukraine, he later lived in the United States and in Israel, working as a Jewish professional. During World War II he served as a U.S. Army chaplain in France; during his career, he visited countries around the world to assist endangered Jewish communities.
In a tragic coda, he lost a son — David Ben-Rafael, deputy chief of mission at the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires — who was among the 29 victims of a terrorist bombing of the Embassy in 1992.
Over the years Goldman was a close associate of such prominent Israelis as Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek, but he retained his modest demeanor, hesitating to drop names or laud himself. In his Jerusalem apartment, which overlooked the Knesset, he displayed only family photographs — none of him shaking hands or sharing intimate conversations with the leaders whose paths he had crossed.
Asked two years ago how a man with no formal diplomatic training managed to conduct negotiations with high-ranking officials around the world, Goldman answered, “I was representing the Jewish people. I couldn’t afford to fail.”
A few years ago we called to ask him why he thought a fellow JDC retired official had come out of retirement to take on another high-visibility, high-pressure job in the Jewish community. “You’re calling the wrong person,” he answered. “I’m 94, and I’m at the office today.”
The JDC’s president, Penny Blumenstein, and its CEO, Alan Gill, described him this week as “a cornerstone” of the organization’s global operations for more than 40 years. “Ralph was an iconic and transformative figure who embodied the notion that all Jews are responsible for one another,” they said, noting that he worked to help build the Jewish state and later guided JDC as it expanded its efforts in the former Soviet Union, all the while serving as a caring mentor to many of today’s Jewish leaders.
In his years of putative retirement, Goldman continued to travel overseas on JDC assignments and to work at the JDC headquarters in Jerusalem.
In the foreword to “I Seek My Brethren,” Tom Shachtman’s 2001 book about Goldman and his accomplishments at the JDC, Teddy Kollek called Goldman “a rare combination of idealist and pragmatist, which means that he has vision and good ideas and also know how to make things happen.”
It is only fitting that the JDC’s Fellowship Program for “young Jewish thinkers and doers,” men and women who will follow Goldman’s path of communal leadership, bears his name.
Ralph Goldman, who was honored widely on his landmark birthday last month, left behind a record of accomplishments that made his name a blessing in his lifetime. May it ever be so.