Ralph Goldman, the Haganah’s Man in New York, Passes Away at Age 100
Tributes have been pouring in for Ralph Goldman, the former chief executive of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) who passed away earlier today.
Goldman, who was born in 1914 – the same year that JDC was established – was a legendary figure among American Jews and in Israel. As a Jewish professional, his biography reads like a history of the last century in microcosm. Goldman was intimately involved with many of the key developments in Jewish life over the last hundred years, among them the creation of the State of Israel and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“Though we have lost a giant of the Jewish world and Israel, we are taking comfort and celebrating Ralph’s extraordinary 100-year-legacy which today can be found in the countless lives he transformed through his life’s work, ” Alan Gill, the CEO of the JDC, told The Algemeiner. “From the elderly Jew in Kiev to the young Jewish woman embracing her identity in Hungary, from the Ethiopian Israeli schoolchild to the distinguished group of Fellows who proudly bear his name and help us change the world for the better, Ralph lives on in all of us.”
Born in Lechovitz, Ukraine, Goldman immigrated to the United States with his family as a young child. He grew up in Dorchester, Massachusetts, a predominantly Jewish suburb of Boston, and attended the local public schools during the day, and a five-day-week Hebrew school in the late afternoons.
Involved in local Zionist activities as a young man, Goldman entered an essay contest sponsored by a student Zionist organization in 1937. His essay on Stalin’s idea of a so-called “homeland for the Jews,” in the remote and forbidding Birobidzhan area of Siberia, won the contest, and Goldman was awarded a fellowship to spend a year in Palestine, later to become the State of Israel. He often recounted how profoundly his stay among the pre-state Zionist pioneers impacted his thinking and his emotions for the rest of his life.
From 1942-45, Goldman served in the U.S. Army, first in the United States, then in England, and finally, at the conclusion of World War II, in Germany. In this final posting, Goldman was assigned to assist Jews in Displaced Persons Camps, an experience to which he attributed the inspiration to devote his life to helping the Jewish people.
Goldman was active in the New York operation of the pre-State Jewish army, the Haganah. Goldman helped to buy and lease airplanes and ships to transport immigrants from war-ravaged Europe to Palestine, and assisted in the effort to recruit personnel for the nascent army. It was as part of this work that Goldman met Teddy Kollek, later to become the iconic mayor of Jerusalem, beginning a life-long relationship that was both professional and personal.
Goldman was also a close confidant and advisor to David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister. He first met Ben Gurion in 1949, and became his representative at the Israel consulate in New York. In 1951, Ben Gurion put Goldman in charge of the Prime Minister’s first visit to the U.S. as head of state. That tour successfully completed, Kollek (who had become the Director-General of the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem) invited Goldman back to Israel to head the Technical Assistance Department, the coordinating body in Israel of the U.S. “Point Four” program, which provided American know-how and funding to emerging countries.
In 1976, Goldman became the chief executive of JDC. He served twice in this position, from 1976 until 1985, and again from 1986 until 1988.
As JDC’s professional leader, Goldman was best known for initiating and overseeing JDC’s re-entry into most of Eastern Europe, where it had been active in the early part of the 20th century, re-establishing during the mid-1980s a strong Jewish presence in a region where Jews and Judaism were decimated by Nazism and then barred under Communism. In 1979, he persuaded Hungary’s Communist regime to allow JDC to assist elderly Jews, but soon expanded JDC’s aid to Jews of all ages. JDC also provided a Jewish connection to this community, initiating a summer camp for Jewish children, the first of its kind under a communist regime.
In December 1981, Goldman traveled to Warsaw to negotiate with the Polish government for JDC access to help the country’s remaining Jewish community. On the tarmac, he encountered army tanks and soldiers, as well as a U.S. Embassy representative advising him to turn back, as the Polish dictator General Jaruzelski had just declared a military emergency. Undeterred, Goldman continued to his hotel, where he met with a Polish official. The two signed a cooperative agreement on a napkin at the end of their dinner together.
Goldman was predeceased by both his wife, Helen, and his son, David Ben-Rafael, a senior Israeli diplomat killed in the March 1992 terrorist bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Argentina.
In a 2012 interview, Goldman was asked how he was able to successfully negotiate with foreign officials, given his lack of formal diplomatic training. “I was representing the Jewish People. I couldn’t afford to fail,” he answered.