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“It’s a revolutionary moment,” said Jerome Chanes, a fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center. “For the federation of New York to get for the first time an executive who wears a yarmulke, that’s something unusual in the federation world.”
A 2011 study sponsored by UJA-Federation found a massive increase in the number of Orthodox Jews in New York, with 40% of the city’s Jews identifying as Orthodox. Most scholars agree that growth can be attributed mainly to the latter group.
“Modern Orthodox can potentially be the bridge to Hasidic and yeshiva Jews,” said Ukeles, who is also one of the authors of the study. He said that Goldstein could be in a unique position to reach out to New York’s ultra-Orthodox community, which is showing a growing interest in communal activity but is mainly one of the largest recipients of federation support. The Orthodox make up a large part of the city’s Jewish poor, alongside Russian immigrants and Jews with disabilities.
Still, Goldstein’s unusual background has drawn attention. “People talked to me at shul about this,” Chanes said. “They wanted to know who are his clients. Why did he defend Milken?”
Chanes himself did not see any problem with Goldstein’s record as an attorney. Ukeles agreed, noting that Goldstein’s good ties in the business community could have been a plus in his selection, because “he can secure Wall Street funders.”
UJA-Federation President Alisa Doctoroff, who headed the search committee, defended the choice of Goldstein in a statement to the Forward: “We presented, and the board selected the best person for the job. Period.” Doctoroff noted that the search committee reached out to candidates within the federation and the Jewish communal world and from outside. “While there was enormous appreciation of all the candidates, Eric was ultimately the unanimous choice,” she said.
All agree that Goldstein’s main challenge will be not only maintaining the federation’s funding levels, but also finding ways to broaden the federation’s donor base, which has shrunk, in one decade, to 60,000 from 80,000. Ruskay was credited with saving the New York federation from the downturn that other federations suffered; he got top donors to give more, even as the base shrunk. Goldstein is expected to continue to engage heavy donors, such as his old Wall Street clients and legal colleagues, while trying to counter the current trend in Jewish philanthropy, a trend that has shifted donor money away from federations’ central campaign and to specific causes.
“I think the federation system is absolutely essential,” he said on January 23, adding that there is a need to provide a greater understanding to younger members of the Jewish community about the importance of the federation.