It is said that there are thirty-six pillars of the world, thirty-six who dedicate their lives to justice and to upholding good in the world. One of those pillars was entrusted to new stewardship this Tuesday by my hero, and the hero of tens of thousands who may not even know his name but certainly owe him a debt of gratitude: Ralph Goldman. His was a full life, filled with victories and losses, with opportunities and struggles, and most of all with hope for the future and a belief that by supporting good people, and encouraging them to act in the manner that they will realize independently and interdependently their potential, a better future can and will be attained.
If you are reading this, than your life has been in some way shaped by Ralph Goldman, even if this is the first time you happen across his name. Few in the history of the Jewish People lived through such revolutionary times, and played so many multifaceted and essential roles, as did Ralph. As a silent leader, as an essential and stellar administrator, and as a behind the scenes engine that moved heaven and earth, Ralph built organizations and spread networks far and wide to aid in the establishment of the Jewish State, to support the Jews trapped behind the then-Iron curtain, and the return the Jews of Ethiopia to their ancestral home in Israel. And yet despite his central role in history, his pivotal accomplishments, Ralph maintained a humility and accessibility that I have rarely, if ever, seen elsewhere. It can be summed up in a moment, captured on film: an iconic image of Ralph as a young man helping David Ben-Gurion into his suit jacket.
That spirit of humble dedication radiated from him wherever he went, and left a mark on whomever had the good fortune to meet him. It was an energy that infected his general vicinity. I first felt it when Ralph entered my life and the life of generations of social entrepreneurs in the PresenTense Group in the summer of 2008, when he sat down on the couch of the second PresenTense Institute for Creative Zionism in Jerusalem’s neighborhood of Arnona.
Although he came to visit Shai Davis, a PresenTense Fellow that summer, we asked him if he would like to meet the other social entrepreneurs spending the summer in Jerusalem. Despite the lack of air conditioning or prior scheduling, he did not hesitate to say yes. In that first conversation we learned of his great dedication to the future, his celebration of the potential of the next generation, and his willingness to share himself with those of us who could only dream of bettering the world as he did. He told us that we were ‘like oxygen’ for him, and thanked us for the opportunity to sit with the next generations of halutzim, of pioneers, of social entrepreneurs that he said reminded him of his generation. In the hours and years and dozens of conversations to follow, Ralph conveyed to us countless memories, and inspired action that would lead to countless blessings.
He shared with us his personal recollections of the first days of the State, of the first years of the organization of the mechanisms of government that enabled a disembodied people to find itself strong and confident and able to build a new home for itself in the land we had, for so long, yearned for. He provided a first-hand account of the startup period of this nation from his unique perspective as a member of the country’s management team during the messy, chaotic days through which the state was created. By telling us stories about how Israel’s milk became pasteurized, how the site of the Israel museum was chosen, and how Truman came to recognize the State, he gave us permission to engage in the creative process of nation building, to directly identify with the young men and women he knew three generations before us. Through his stories he instilled in us a feeling of obligation to continue the work that they had started. Each story came with its lesson, each lesson with its call to action. And we were, and are, so very thirsty for such calls to action.
Ralph embodied for us the hero we are so sorely lacking in today’s Israel: the quiet leader, unafraid to stand at the front when called upon but not seeking the limelight for its own sake. One accessible to all, actively seeking successors who will join him as partners in the work. One steadfast in the recognition that the opportunity to do good on a national scale is reward enough. One who celebrates others as they accomplish great things, and helps them to do so. Ralph, as we saw him, embodied the Zionist ethos, the global intellectual who understood that each people has its particular light to shine, and that since each and every light brightens the nations, it is incumbent upon us to tend to our light and strengthen its luminosity.
Ralph was a light unto us just as he tended to the particular light of our nation. To me, Ralph embodied the mentor and guide, a figure me and my generation searches for far and wide, one who shares in his wisdom and celebrates others instead of guarding his position jealously. If I were to guess, he came to that role consciously. One day, as we drove through the streets of Jerusalem, we passed the street named after Menachem Ussishkin, the Zionist leader who served as the head of the Jewish National Fund. “I try to avoid this street,” Ralph told me. Why, I asked. “I met him,” he told me, remembering the exact year — a year I have since forgotten. “When he heard what youth movement I was associated with, he wouldn’t shake my hand,” he told me, and laughed. It was this allergy to exclusivity, this rejection of jealous partisanship, that made Ralph for us such an inspirational figure.
Ralph liked to comment that he saw himself as a witness to history (and when he wrote it, at least to me, he always wrote ‘witness to history’ with an underline), and this is despite his being a key writer of the history of our People, and the history of our State. Today, we who are left in the world he helped build are, for the first time in a century, going to have to bear witness to how the world gets on without his active involvement. As we prepare ourselves for that task, let us pray we are able to bear witness as actively as he did: with courage, with dedication, and above all with humility.