Armed with a razor-sharp mind, a disarming smile and an iconic bowtie, Ralph Goldman, who died October 7 at the age of 100, glided effortlessly through the Jewish mega-dramas of the 20th century.
Born in Ukraine in 1914, raised in Boston and educated in Jewish studies and Hebrew, he grew up to be a world leader, present at every crossroad of last century’s stormy Jewish history: mending the broken, straightening the crooked and creating new life and hope for millions.
Away from the public eye, Ralph was a sensitive and devoted friend. For 28 years we were partly like father and son, partly like close contemporaries despite the decades separating our ages. He recruited me out of Israeli television news for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, for which he was the CEO at that time, in a 20-minute interview. As he later explained, “I don’t need more time to judge if a candidate is smart or not….”
Over the years, he and I laughed, joked, celebrated or cried, as circumstances demanded. He and his wife, Helen, walked me down the aisle on my wedding day and celebrated the bat mitzvah of my daughter. When my newborn preemie baby was in the neonatal intensive care unit, Ralph rushed to visit him, saying, “I want to be able to tell him when he is older that I met him when he was that small!” (He did, years later, over dinner.)
The private Ralph loved a good-storytelling session. He would call me often to say: “Come over, let’s gossip. I got the vodka chilled.”
And did he know stories! He is probably the only person who played two-handed poker with Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. (The two were on a boat sailing back to Israel. Ben-Gurion was bored, so Ralph taught him the game and played with him, making sure to lose often).
He spent a lifetime amassing those stories. Following his service in the U.S. Army during World War II, he visited the displaced persons camps. Witnessing the remnants of the Holocaust was a powerful, life-changing event that sent him to join the clandestine Haganah’s efforts to create the State of Israel. Procuring airplanes, ships and other vital items for the army-in-formation, he played a personal role in covert operations that led to the November 29, 1947, United Nations vote creating the Jewish state. “I did what was right at that moment of history for the Jewish people; I never cared if it might damage my future career,” he told me once.
It did not damage his career at all, at least not the one he chose to follow. In the 1950s, Ralph served for seven years in Ben-Gurion’s office, becoming his trusted confidant and favored intellectual interlocutor. He oversaw the implementation of crucial American technical assistance to Israel, as one of Ben-Gurion’s inner-circle that shaped the young state. It was a select group that included Shimon Peres, Teddy Kollek, Yitzhak Navon and Moshe Dayan, to name a few. While he would happily share his recollections of those years, there were some areas upon which the ex-Haganah-agent would still not elaborate, even recently. Asked about his relationship with an official who was involved in Israel’s search for nuclear energy, Ralph replied with an enigmatic smile, “Sometimes I acted as his boss, and in other circumstance he acted as my boss.”
In his next role, as the head of the America-Israel Cultural Fund, he sowed hope and reaped virtuosos: The wunderkind Itzhak Perlman is perhaps the most famous young Israeli whose genius Ralph helped to nourish. Ralph’s partnership with Kollek facilitated the creation of The Israel Museum, and his magic touch with philanthropists helped bring art and culture to Zion.
However, Ralph Goldman is identified mostly as “Mr. Joint” — the executive who led, guided and propelled the JDC in various positions for most of its century-long existence. In a world hostile to Jews, he navigated the JDC to successful operations that helped Jews on the way to freedom, to better Jewish life and to prosperity. “In order to save Jews, we will dance with the devil if necessary,” Ralph said. And dance he did: Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania, Mengistu Haile Mariam in Ethiopia, Wojciech Jaruzelski in Poland, various Communist and Soviet officials in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and finally — the “Big Bear” itself — the USSR could not stop Ralph Goldman in his committed pursuit of the well-being of Jews worldwide.
Traveling with him in Russia in the early 1990s I saw how much he cared about people and paid attention to small details. “Let us go visit Mr. G. at home,” he would say, summoning me to drive to the Moscow address of a well-known media person. To my question, he replied: “Why at home? Because I brought food supplies that I know they cannot afford here.” And he did not forget a make-up kit for the wife as well.
I was dispatched to knock on his door on the early morning after the 1992 bombing of the Israel Embassy in Buenos Aires, to tell him that his son, David Ben-Rafael, deputy chief of mission, was missing. From that moment and until his final days, I spent hours with him, drafting letters — angry, but controlled and polite — to numerous presidents of Argentina, Israeli ministers and others, demanding that they not drop the investigation until the terrorists were found.
He explained his relentless pursuit of the murderers of his son to me simply by quoting the Bible: “Justice, Justice you shall pursue!” Yet he never let the loss stop him from charging forward toward new goals in the 22 years he outlived his son.
The private Ralph Goldman was a humble man, a loving father and grandfather, a good partner for a drink or a chat, an avid reader and an ever-curious person. Even at the age of 100 he was excited for everything new. He had an optimistic spirit, and his ability to befriend members of successive younger generations was a constant inspiration.
The world, especially those parts he was so instrumental in forming, is a darker place without him.
Amir Shaviv is the assistant executive vice president for special operations at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Contact him at email@example.com