The Jew of the century has just left us. That century was 1914-2014. It was the century of Jewish national and spiritual crisis and renewal, loss and triumph. And behind it all, in so many ways, was Ralph I. Goldman. My hero.
Since learning that Ralph was nearing the close of his long and fruitful life, I’ve been alternating between sorrow and inspiration, equally anticipating the loss and reflecting on all he accomplished, and all he imparted to me. I’ve had several mentors over the years, but more than anyone else — as much by circumstance as design — Ralph has been my role model, the one I aspire to emulate. What would Ralph do?
Here is what Ralph did, at least a few highlights from the many hours I was blessed to spend with him since 1991.
Born in the Russian Empire in 1914 and raised in Boston, Ralph spent a college year in Israel, before it was “Israel”. He was going to be a teacher. Was.
In Palestine, he and his classmates used to hang out with Moshe Shertok (later Sharett) and company, as they grappled with what kind of Jewish state there would be, and whether it would be at all. One night, he joined a group of pioneers who trucked up north to hastily construct Kibbutz Hanita along today’s Lebanon border, establishing a settlement before the British could stop it.
After his service in World War II, Ralph helped young Holocaust survivors get back on their feet and find their Jewish way. Back in New York, he helped Teddy Kollek run the Haganah office. One night, perhaps in 1946, he and a colleague flew down to Baltimore (a big deal in those days) and purchased an old rust bucket, later renamed the Haganah Ship Exodus 1947. Just like that.
That could have been enough.
Returning to Israel with his dear Helen, Ralph helped Ben-Gurion set up the Point Four program, which channeled international assistance into building a social and economic basis for turning the brand-new State of Israel into a sustainable enterprise.
Ralph spent many, many hours and days and weeks with the Ben-Gurions. And with every other major Israeli leader who started out around the same table in the small home on what’s now called Ben-Gurion Boulevard. My fellow RIG Fellows and I were privileged to join Ralph on a visit to that home, which is now a museum.
Ralph pointed out where he and other aides advised Ben-Gurion during the 1956 war. In the library still stacked with thousands of books, he reminisced about how he and a colleague had taken hundreds off the shelves, as Israel’s founding leader told them each title to pack for his new home at Sde Boker, without even having to look up.
In the kitchen, a chair was pulled up to a table barely large enough for one place setting, where Ralph had watched Ben-Gurion eat so many meals. Once, when they were getting up to leave, Ben-Gurion first walked to the sink and washed his glass. Ralph decided that, if the Prime Minister of Israel could wash his own glass in his own kitchen, then so could he.
Ralph established — and then compelled the Israeli government to take over — a national social welfare network, followed by community centers. Without Ralph, Israel would be a very different place.
In Ralph and Helen’s Wolfson Towers apartment, late one Shabbat afternoon, a few friends and I stood at the living room window, admiring the stunning sunset over the Israel Museum across the next hill. Ralph joined us, and recalled how he and the architect (and maybe the legendary Teddy Kollek?) had selected that site, one day 45 years earlier.
Some years later, Ralph brought us for a behind the scenes look at the renovated and reconfigured Israel Museum, weeks before it was to open to the public. Amid all the last-minute hammering and drilling, and pouring of concrete, the museum’s world-class director still made time for Ralph and his Fellows, and share very intimate observations about his own dreams and vision. Because without Ralph, even if there might be an Israel, there would certainly be no Israel Museum. Ralph would never claim to being anyone special, but he was definitely proud and humbled to be a certain sort of 20th century Jew.
Ralph never bragged. He mentioned things as they came up, as a matter of fact, by the way, and always to uplift and impart. Every action he took expressed a deep appreciation for the Jewish essence, past and future, and how to make it meaningful for the participants. When I once referred to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) as a welfare organization, Ralph emphatically corrected me. It’s not about welfare, it’s about Jewish values and community, it’s about humanity, not merely giving out food or blankets.
Ralph had a natural sense of when to speak and when to be quiet, when to pay attention and when to look the other way. When to wait, and when to insist.
Ralph didn’t just establish schools and soup kitchens across the Soviet Union and then the successor states, he ensured the revival of Jewish music and arts. In the 1990s, a small gathering in the Goldmans’ New York apartment (for Chanukah?) was graced with a performance by the heavenly Moscow Synagogue Choir, which Ralph had created almost out of thin air.
In December 1981, while Ralph was in Warsaw to negotiate JDC’s return to Poland, the regime imposed martial law. Soldiers and tanks on the streets. Arriving back in the West aboard the first train allowed out, Ralph responded to reporters seeking comment, “No speak English.” The goal was to reopen Jewish life behind the Iron Curtain, not publicity, and his success — and that of his colleagues — is literally the subject of books.
In 1991, Ralph arrived in Moscow just as Mikhail Gorbachev was being detained by his generals. All official offices were shut, whether out of decree or self-preservation. But Ralph had scheduled a series of high-level appointments, and he showed up for each of them, even though in nearly all cases his host wasn’t available.
Hoping to emulate Ralph, on September 12, 2001, I was scheduled to join other community representatives for a small meeting with a foreign leader visiting Washington. The city was closed, but I walked to the hotel and stopped into the designated conference room, just in case. I really don’t like to miss appointments.
Ralph went out of his way to mentor and learn from young people. Some of us were fortunate to know Ralph personally and to understand the degree to which he cared and was instrumental. Countless thousands, in Israel and across the world — Jews and non-Jews — may not be aware of his direct impact on their lives and their outlook, but it is there all the same. I suppose, Ralph never stopped teaching, after all.
Ralph’s story was the story of 100 truly consequential and challenging years in Jewish history. Immigration to the United States; World War II; rebuilding post-war Jewish life in Europe and securing aliyah and the State of Israel; restoring Eastern Europe and again Jewish life; standing for Israel in the face of terrorism, as his son David, a rising Israeli diplomat, was murdered in 1992 along with 28 others when Hezbollah terrorists bombed Israel’s Embassy in Buenos Aires.
Ralph knew that Jewish life was about a Jewish soul and a Jewish yearning, and not just for food or shelter. Now his Jewish soul will be eternally reunited with all our heroes, and with his Helen and David.
Ralph never ran out of ideas or goals, or opportunities. He was grateful for each day, and each opportunity, but if it were up to him, I believe he’d have kept going. His memory shall always be a blessing, an impetus to never stop thinking and acting.