Ralph Goldman, a former leader of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and a central figure in Israel’s establishment, has died at the age of 100.
Goldman, who served under David Ben-Gurion as Israel’s envoy to the United States, died Tuesday in Jerusalem, where he had lived for several decades.
Goldman first became involved in JDC in 1968 when he became the associate director of its Israel operation. He went on to serve twice as the chief executive of JDC, from 1976 until 1985, and again from 1986 until 1988.
Born on Sept. 1, 1914, in the town of Lechovitz in what is now Ukraine, Goldman at 11 immigrated with his family to a Jewish suburb of Boston, where he attended the local public schools during the day and Hebrew school five days a week in the late afternoons.
Goldman was involved in local Zionist activities as a young man and won an essay contest sponsored by a student Zionist organization in 1937 for his essay on Stalin’s idea of a so-called “homeland for the Jews” in Birobidzhan (Siberia). He was awarded a fellowship to spend a year in Palestine, where he participated in the establishment of Kibbutz Hanita in the Galilee.
He returned to the U.S. and earned his bachelor’s degree from Boston University and a master’s in social work from Harvard.
Goldman served in the U.S. Army from 1942 to 1945, first in the United States, then in England and at the conclusion of World War II in Germany, where he was assigned to assist Jews in Displaced Persons camps. The Germany experience inspired Goldman to devote his life to helping the Jewish people, according to the JDC.
He was active in the New York operation of the prestate Israel army, the Haganah, helping to buy and lease airplanes and ships to transport immigrants from Europe to Palestine, and assisting in the effort to recruit personnel for the nascent force. Through this work Goldman met and befriended Teddy Kollek, later to become the longtime mayor of Jerusalem.
Goldman was also a close confidant and adviser to Ben-Gurion, and in 1951 was in charge of the prime minister’s first visit to the U.S. as head of state.
Goldman was a driving force in JDC’s activity behind the Iron Curtain after he joined the organization in 1969. He led sensitive negotiations with Soviet leaders, successfully navigating JDC’s return to what became the former Soviet Union almost immediately after the fall of communism.
Limmud FSU, together with the Jewish community of Belarus, last month celebrated his 100th birthday as part of the opening gala celebrations at the beginning of a Limmud FSU conference held in Vitebsk.
Goldman was honored at JDC’s centennial celebration in Jerusalem in May.
“The profound sadness and deep sense of loss we feel today is indescribable,” JDC President Penny Blumenstein and CEO Alan Gill said in a statement. “Ralph Goldman was a giant among Jewish leaders, dedicating his life and career to strengthening Israel and to ensuring the survival and vibrancy of Jewish people and communities worldwide.
“A cornerstone of JDC’s global operations for more than four decades, Ralph was an iconic and transformative figure who embodied the notion that all ‘Jews are responsible for one another’ throughout his long and extraordinary life.
“His passing leaves a tremendous void, but also a priceless legacy that will sustain JDC, Israel, and the Jewish world well into the future,” they said.
Goldman’s son, David Ben-Rafael, a senior Israeli diplomat, was killed in the March 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Argentina.