This week is replete with significance in Jewish history: the seventy-fifth anniversary of the beginning of WWII and the tragedies it wrought for Jews in Europe as well as the trials and tribulations it brought to the Jews of the Yishuv; the founding of my organization, JDC, at the outset of WWI and the beginning of a century of partnership with the Jewish People; and in Lechovitz, Ukraine, one hundred years ago, the birth of Ralph I. Goldman, a builder of the State of Israel and a visionary Jewish leader whose wisdom and continued action remind us that virtually anything is possible.
I had the great privilege of celebrating with Ralph and his family along with his closest friends at his one-hundredth birthday Monday evening in Jerusalem.
Standing there, absorbing the warmth and pride that enveloped all of us in the room, I was struck by the critical importance of Ralph’s leadership over the many decades that he has been involved in Jewish life and his passionate dedication to building the Jewish State.
And at this moment in history when the world is aflame in conflict and worry and we are searching for direction and stability, I was reminded once again how much we can learn from Ralph and his living legacy to inspire and inform us today.
So in celebration of my mentor and dear friend, I want to offer four lessons from Ralph’s incredible life — one for each quarter century he has been with us:
1. Dream big — formulate a way to achieve your goal and stick to it, even when the going gets rough and settling for less seems like the wiser path.
When Ralph took the helm of JDC in January 1976, the Cold War was in full sway. Yet Ralph immediately set a goal many would have thought impossible: he was determined to see Jewish life reemerge in every Soviet satellite nation, and then the Soviet Union itself.
Using the diplomatic skills and contacts honed in his previous career as a trusted adviser to Ben-Gurion and other Israeli leaders, Ralph conducted sensitive, often protracted negotiations with Communist governments, moving slowly but steadily toward his goal.
By 1980, JDC was allowed back into Hungary, and before long we were helping to furnish critical welfare services throughout Eastern Europe. Ralph was determined to add cultural and training components wherever possible, taking advantage of every opportunity to nurture the beginnings of a Jewish reawakening.
In January 1988, Ralph and a delegation of JDC leaders were invited to the Soviet Union, where they were asked to create an updated version of Agro-Joint — the JDC economic resettlement effort brought to a halt by Stalin exactly 50 years earlier.
Bravely, they refused, explaining that JDC’s goal now was to restore to the Jews of the Soviet Union the Jewish heritage that was rightfully theirs. Their perseverance was rewarded, and JDC was subsequently officially invited return to the Soviet Union.
Under Ralph’s guidance, we initiated programs that over the past quarter century have enabled Jews throughout this region to acquire the knowledge and skills to rebuild communities and shape an authentic Jewish life of their own choosing. And we created a world-class network of social welfare services that continue to sustain the most vulnerable among them.
2. Take pride in your heritage, and understand the core values that motivate and sustain you.
For Ralph, hakamat hamedina, the birth and evolution of the State of Israel, is an existential part of his identity, not least because of the role he played as an early builder of the Jewish state.
After all, this is a man who can go down any street in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa and recount a personal anecdote about the man or woman for whom that boulevard is named.
Ralph’s fierce allegiance to Israel — and his determination to create brighter opportunities for its most vulnerable populations — has colored every facet of his long and storied career, from the community centers he pioneered, the cultural institutions that continue to enrich Jewish life, and the Jewish organizational partnerships that are enhancing services for seniors and giving all of Israel’s citizens a share in its dynamic future.
Above all, Ralph viewed Israel as the fulcrum for JDC and the Jewish world’s global activities, and he took great pride in seeing innovative programs and services developed in Israel take root and flourish throughout the Jewish world.
3. The Jewish world is “intertwined, interconnected”:
Building on the sacred principle — kol Yisrael areivim zeh la zeh (all Jews are responsible for each other) — Ralph’s lifework teaches us that the Jewish People can persevere no matter the circumstances. And they can do so because of the ties that bind us together as a people and extend to the remotest corners of the world.
This is what lay behind Ralph’s enduring concern for the Jewish communities that remained behind in the Muslim world, his outreach to a heretofore isolated community in India, and his determination to negotiate what proved to be a lifeline to Ethiopian Jewry nearly a decade before the iconic Operation Solomon.
And this is what inspires us today as we, as a global people, care for thousands of Jews caught in Ukraine’s roiling crisis, and stood by the most vulnerable Israelis throughout Hamas’s missile attacks.
4. Take to heart the injunction — vehigadita l’bincha — “and you shall teach your child.”
Ralph was determined to inculcate in emerging Jewish generations the skills and sense of mutual responsibility that would ensure our communal future, and he created leadership development and training initiatives that are flourishing today worldwide.
I know for certain that with all the honorary degrees and awards he has received, Ralph is proudest of the Ralph I. Goldman Fellowship established by JDC’s Board in 1987.
He has enthusiastically mentored each and every one RIG Fellows, eagerly following their progress in subsequent years. And he meets every year with JDC Entwine’s Global Jewish Service Corps volunteers before they embark around the Jewish world to fulfill his vision of global Jewish connectivity.
They are indeed among his “living legacy,” and they will be sparking an ever-stronger Jewish future in the decades to come.
From all of us who benefitted from your life’s work; your friendship and guidance; your extraordinary model of Jewish leadership, we say thank you, Ralph!
May this birthday bring you the very blessings, happiness, and comfort you have bestowed to our world! We are forever grateful.