What Eric Goldstein's Appointment Says About Changing Jewish Community

The Litvaks Have Finally Conquered the Yekkes

New Man: Eric Goldstein, right, receives award from American Friends of Hebrew University. The lawyer has been picked to lead the New York UJA-Federation.
New Man: Eric Goldstein, right, receives award from American Friends of Hebrew University. The lawyer has been picked to lead the New York UJA-Federation.

By Jerome Chanes

Published January 31, 2014.
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The report that the UJA-Federation of New York will appoint Eric Goldstein as CEO has implications that go far beyond the appointment itself. Most important are those changes within the federation system, and in the New York Federation itself, which inform the Goldstein appointment.

To understand the historical and sociological significance of the Goldstein appointment we need to take a step back. The federation system has its roots in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, an era of Litvak versus Galitzianer, Bundist versus Zionist — and especially Litvak versus Yekke, the plaint of the Russian Jew who often chafed under the paternalist hegemony of the German Jewish aristocracy. And it was the German Jewish establishment that established the Jewish communal system, especially the federations, and who controlled the system for decades, well into the post-War era.

The Goldstein appointment is a revolutionary moment in the New York Federation, and by extension in the federated system. It represents the final step in the passing of power from the hegemony of the old German-Jewish autarchy, to a new generation of professional and lay leaders who have grown up during a period of major changes in the system. The changes?

First is the tremendous growth in number and impact of Jewish family foundations — and the concomitant response on the part of the federations in the form of federation foundations and endowment funds — which have changed, irrevocably, the nature of giving and indeed large segments of the communal agenda. Good news or bad news? Stay tuned.

More basic is the shift in the organizational “center of gravity” from national to local. Over the past thirty years, the impact of heretofore powerful national groups has lessened (with one important exception, AIPAC), and local organizations — strong, aggressive, federations — have filled a vacuum and have taken on national and indeed international tasks that were once within the sole purview of the national agencies. The economic crisis in Argentina, the pauperization of Jews in the Soviet Union, the plight of the elderly in America — responses to these and other emergency situations were spearheaded by aggressive execs in federations.
Further, with the diminution of anti-Semitism and an increased sense of the physical security of Israel since the 1980s, a Jewish communal agenda that had been, for decades, consumed by Jewish security issues, has been increasingly nudged by the internal priorities of Jewish identity and Jewish education.

And in New York, few will remember that there was significant objection in the 1970s to the creation by the federation, of a Jewish community relations council to manage local public-affairs agenda. The remnants of the German-Jewish leadership wanted nothing of the kind; “We take care of hospitals and the poor, period,” they kvetched. The old leadership, yet living out the history of Yekke “quietism,” wanted no part of what they feared would be very public public-affairs activism. It was a visionary professional, Sandy Solender, and a tenacious lay-leader, Dan Shapiro, who succeeded in overcoming strong opposition to a JCRC and establishing what has become a highly-successful JCRC in New York.

This is the context for change in the federations — and for Eric Goldstein’s tenure in New York. The New York UJA-Federation is playing an increasingly important national and international role. Is this a good thing? Historians will argue this question. One of the questions raised about the federations’ shift in priorities is that the inter-organizational balance between the community agencies, the national public-affairs agencies, and the federations has changed, as the federations have moved aggressively into the public-policy arena. Anti-Semitism and Israel are two important examples. Goldstein, who does not come out of the professional organizational arena, will need to have perfect pitch in calibrating the inter-organizational balance.

Finally, Eric Goldstein is identifiably an Orthodox Jew — unheard of in the system even a very few years ago. Goldstein is a chovesh kippah — he wears the typically Modern Orthodox yarmulke. But it’s more than the fact that Goldstein is frum. The significance of his appointment goes beyond the fact of the first traditionally-observant exec at the helm of the largest federation. It is highly symbolic in a system that for a century often stood for, at best, non-religion.

But there is more. Goldstein’s religious commitments and activities have been public and visible — and they have been progressive. His inspired leadership of the Bet Din of America was a factor in maintaining the integrity of the institution. He is a supporter of JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. He was vigorous in his public support of the failed candidacy of Rabbi David Stav for the position of Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi of Israel, a candidacy that held the hope, if not the promise, of breaking the stranglehold of a few haredi/sectarian rabbis over the Rabbinate in Israel, and of returning the Rabbanut to a place where it might no longer represent the embodiment of moral and religious corruption, indeed bankruptcy.

Eric Goldstein acting as Jew qua Jew may be the most significant of all.

Jerome Chanes, a Forward contributing editor, is a fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies of the CUNY Graduate Center. He is the author of four books on Jewish history and public affairs.


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