Aged 90, and still hooked on the Joint
Ralph Goldman, honorary director general of the Joint Distribution Committee, is not yet ready to take things easy.
The interview with Ralph Goldman was delayed for two weeks because he planned a trip to Russia and to the Jewish Federation's General Assembly in the United States.
When he is in Israel, 90-year-old Goldman shows up everyday at the Jerusalem office of the Joint Distribution Committee and stays there until the late afternoon hours. And his day doesn't start without a ride on an exercise bicycle he has in his home. Upon returning home after a full day in the office, Goldman spends another "hour or two every evening" on the phone to the Joint's New York offices dealing with issues ranging from archival matters to aid to Jews in the former Soviet Union.
At the age of 90, Ralph Goldman is the man most closely identified with the world Jewish aid organization despite the fact his activities with the organization began only at the age of 54. Since that time, however, he has served as deputy director general of the Joint in Israel (and, in fact, was the one who set up the group's Israel office), spent 11 years as director general of the world Joint and later as a senior activist, mostly in the FSU. In recognition of his activities, the Joint granted Goldman the title of "honorary director general."
The bulk of Goldman's activities while leading the world Joint was focused on the penetration of Communist bloc countries. He had one iron rule: to do everything through the "front door", with the full knowledge and cooperation of each country's governing authorities.
"I thought an organization like the Joint had to be kosher from all possible perspectives. There were things we did via other organizations, but then you are not really responsible and not able to know that things will be executed," Goldman said.
He exploited every breach in the Iron Curtain.
Hungary was the first target. "We received information that the United States government returned property to Hungary and that there was some understanding between the countries. People started to travel there. So we said: Here's an opportunity. As I was about to travel for official talks in Hungary, I went first to the Hungarian ambassador in the U.S. Among other things, he said to me: We have a diaspora of some 800,000 Hungarians in the U.S. This was a surprising statement. Turns out he saw these 800,000 Hungarians as his potential ambassadors and that's also how he saw us, as people who could act as his ambassadors. It was in this same way that we also did business with the Polish and Czech governments."
The Soviet Union was a harder nut to crack. The Joint operated there under cover names and via other organizations. The organization, for example, spent 1937-1938 at Kibbutz Ein Hashofet, joined in the establishment of Kibbutz Hanita and then spent a number of months studying at Hebrew University, Jerusalem.
World War Two broke out a short time after Goldman returned to the U.S. He spent the first years of the war studying social work, specializing in community work. When the U.S. entered the war, Goldman fought in the army in France and Germany. Upon returning home, he worked to support the Jews in Palestine, mostly by recruiting people to crew boats carrying Jewish refugees from Europe.
Following the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Goldman worked in the Israeli consulate in New York City where he was given responsibility for organizing David Ben-Gurion's first visit to the U.S. Goldman was later involved in efforts in the Prime Minister's Office to coordinate aspects of the Marshall Plan, which threw a number of crumbs to the fledgling Israel.
Only in 1968 did Goldman start work at the Joint. The international organization had not before that time worked officially in Israel. Its activities had been limited to the establishment at the end of WWII and the early days of the state of hospitals and retirement homes for Holocaust survivors and First Aliyah veterans.
Goldman's assignment was twofold: first, to disassemble these early institutions and transfer authority over them to the new Israeli government; second, to establish an Israeli branch of the Joint.
"The Joint's guiding principle, which in my opinion was very wise, was that we do not work in place of the government or Jewish Diaspora communities. We can initiate projects, but the Israeli government, or Diaspora communities, need to continue carrying through with them. My job was to establish a system to serve the elderly in Israel. We entered into partnership with the finance, health and welfare ministries. We gave $5 million and the government budgeted an identical amount allowing us to establish the Eshel network of retirement homes, community work centers for the elderly and training centers to prepare people to work with the elderly." The Joint also established a school of social work at Hebrew University.
Goldman accomplished all this not as the Joint's director general, but as deputy director general. He said he hoped to advance to the position of Joint director general in Israel but it turns out he was so successful he was made director general of the world Joint.
The Joint is a Zionist body
As a man who has been an activist all his life, Goldman has clear opinions on the strategic goals that need to be set today.
"We need to ensure that the Jewish nation will continue to exist. We thus need to ensure that my grandchildren have a common language with their relatives in Israel. We need to make sure Israelis feel they are not just Israelis but also Jews and that Diaspora Jews have a deep connection with Israel. How do we do this? I'm a big believer in `casting your bread.' I was sent on a scholarship to Israel without asking anything in return, and it helped. The birthright (Taglit) project is also a sort of `casting your bread.'"
Unlike many Jewish leaders of organizations such as the Jewish Agency and the Joint, which are nourished by funds raised by Federation, Goldman is not concerned by the gradual drop in such fundraising efforts. He instead points to the increase in direct private donations to institutions and to private funds.
"It's true that Federation today raises just 20 percent of Diaspora money that reaches Israel, but that does not bother me. If a Jew in Cleveland wants to come and invest his money on a private basis, this is part of `the Jewish connection.' People today donate for rational rather than just emotional reasons and we need to accept this."
In his quiet manner, Goldman is angered when Israeli government and Jewish Agency representatives claim his organization is harming the Zionist cause by helping to rehabilitate Jewish Diaspora communities that might otherwise decide to move to Israel.
"How can you say we are not Zionist? After all, we began our operations 90 years ago assisting Jews in the Land of Israel and we sent packages to refuseniks."
Goldman also refuses to accept claims that generous aid is offered to "hopeless communities" in the FSU.
"When I first started at the world Joint in 1976, we spoke about Morocco as a Jewish community without a chance. A community exists there today and no one is doubting its chances of existence."
Bound by a common tragedy
Among the many connections between Goldman and Israel, there is one tragic link. He is a bereaved father. In March 1992, Goldman's son David Ben-Rafael (he had chosen this Hebrew name), who was working in the Israeli Embassy in Argentina, was killed in a terror attack on the building. For Goldman the wound remains fresh. "It is difficult for me to accept that to this very day they have not managed to find those responsible," he said. "It is clear that Argentine authorities blurred the investigation. To my regret, Jews both in Argentina and in the United States gave in to this. In any case, I dealt with this on a personal level via all sorts of organizations in order to ensure the investigation continues," Goldman said. He has a daughter who lives in the United States.