The firebrand executive director of the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect, which came to prominence this year through social media attacks on President Trump, has abruptly stepped down from the organization to become a rabbi.
Steven Goldstein’s resignation, announced online September 8, was sudden.
“Steven’s departure from the Center came at Steven’s request — so that he could return to rabbinical school and to teaching — and he is leaving as a true friend of the Anne Frank Center,” the group said in a statement to the Forward. “He leaves us in a much stronger position than when he started.”
Goldstein informed the board that he would be leaving to attend rabbinical school only a few weeks ago. On Twitter, the organization said September 8 that they had learned a week earlier that he would be enrolling in rabbinical school. Goldstein wrote the same day that he had made the decision while on vacation in late August.
He started classes Monday at the Academy for Jewish Religion, a little-known rabbinical seminary in Yonkers, New York.
“Helping to lead the resistance takes a toll,” Goldstein wrote in a statement announcing his departure. “This has been grueling. At some point, you ask yourself, can I have my life back?”
Goldstein is still listed as executive director on the group’s website. After this story was first published, Goldstein spoke with the Forward, describing how he had been run down by his time leading the organization. “I was simply exhausted,” he said. “I feel the weight of the world off my shoulders, because I was working from 5 A.M. to 1 A.M. twittering, because Donald Trump was twittering.”
Founded in 1959, the Anne Frank Center was relatively unknown even within the Jewish community until late 2016, when it began issuing full-throated denunciations of the Trump administration. It drew particular attention in April with its calls for former White House spokesman Sean Spicer’s firing, accusing him of Holocaust denial over his comments on Syrian poison gas attacks on civilians.
Goldstein, who had previously led a New Jersey gay rights group he had founded called Garden State Equality, joined the organization in June 2016. According to an April 2017 report in The Atlantic, Goldstein’s hiring was part of an effort to reinvent the sleepy group, which closed its small museum and turned over its entire staff after Goldstein arrived.
Since then, the group’s public statements have become something of a Trump-era phenomenon. Its tweets are regularly “favorited” and retweeted thousands of times, and its language strays far from the staid tones favored by most Jewish communal organizations.
The group has been criticized under Goldstein for using Anne Frank’s name in the service of partisan politics, while dropping its former historical focus.
Goldstein said that his job at the Anne Frank Center had been a source of growing stress. “Getting attacks from Donald Trump supporters, it got to me,” he said. “There were death threats. Some of them I took seriously.”
He said that he being a rabbi was a lifelong dream, and that he had previously studied at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Seminary in Philadelphia. “I turned 55 this year,” he said. “I desperately want to be a rabbi.”
Goldstein said that he had considered studying part-time while continuing his role at the Anne Frank Center, but decided against it. “In the end my love for Torah won out,” he said. “The other day I was in class studying the book of Exodus and I felt so at peace.”
He does not know who will succeed him at the Anne Frank Center, but that he will continue to help the organization raise money. “Tonight I’m seeing a concert for the first time,” he said. “I’m ecstatic, to be honest with you.”
In public posts on his personal Facebook page in recent days, Goldstein has described a period of personal reflection. “I confess I’m still in disbelief,” he wrote on September 12. “I’ve changed my life a lot over the past several weeks.”
Correction: This story originally reported that the Anne Frank Center was founded in 1984. In fact, the group was created in 1959. This story was also updated to incorporate an interview with Goldstein.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.