Ralph Goldman, Former JDC Leader and Central Figure in Israel’s Establishment, Dies at 100

Goldman, who served under David Ben-Gurion as Israel’s envoy to the United States, died Tuesday in Jerusalem, where he lived for several decades.

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Ralph Goldman
Ralph GoldmanCredit: JDC, Ofir Ben Natan

Ralph Goldman, a former leader of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and a central figure in Israel’s establishment, has died at the age of 100.

Goldman, who served under David Ben-Gurion as Israel’s envoy to the United States, died Tuesday in Jerusalem, where he had lived for several decades.

Goldman first became involved in JDC in 1968 when he became the associate director of its Israel operation. He went on to serve twice as the chief executive of JDC, from 1976 until 1985, and again from 1986 until 1988.

Born on Sept. 1, 1914, in the town of Lechovitz in what is now Ukraine, At the age of 11, Goldman immigrated with his family to a Jewish suburb of Boston, where he attended the local public schools during the day, and a five-day-week Hebrew school in the late afternoons.

Involved local Zionist activities as a young man, Goldman entered an essay contest sponsored by a student Zionist organization in 1937. His essay on Stalin’s idea of a so-called “homeland for the Jews” in Birobidzhan (Siberia) won the contest, and Goldman was awarded a fellowship to spend a year in Palestine. There he participated in the establishment of Kibbutz Hanita in the Galilee.

He studied history at Harvard University before moving temporarily to then-Palestine , where in the late 1930s he participated in the establishment of Kibbutz Hanita in the Galilee. After he returned, he earned a master’s in social work from Harvard University.

He served in the U.S. Army from 1942 till 1945 – first in the United States, then in England, and finally, at the conclusion of World War II, in Germany. In this posting, Goldman was assigned to assist Jews in Displaced Persons Camps, an experience to which he attributed the inspiration to devote his life to helping the Jewish people, according to the JDC.

Goldman was active in the New York operation of the pre-State Jewish army, the Haganah, helping to buy and lease airplanes and ships to transport immigrants from Europe to Palestine, and assisting in the effort to recruit personnel for the nascent army. Through this work Goldman met and befriended Teddy Kollek, later to become the long-time mayor of Jerusalem.

Goldman was also a close confidant and advisor to David Ben-Gurion, and in 1951 was in charge of the Prime Minister’s first visit to the U.S. as head of state.

He later served as executive director of the American-Israel Cultural Foundation and the Israel Education Fund, an arm of the United Jewish Appeal.

Goldman was a driving force in JDC’s activity behind the Iron Curtain after he joined the organization in 1969. He led sensitive negotiations with Soviet leaders, successfully navigating JDC’s return to what became the former Soviet Union almost immediately after the fall of Communism.

Limmud FSU, together with the Jewish community of Belarus last month celebrated his 100th birthday as part of the opening gala celebrations at the beginning of a Limmud FSU conference held in Vitebsk.

“The profound sadness and deep sense of loss we feel today is indescribable: Ralph Goldman was a giant among Jewish leaders, dedicating his life and career to strengthening Israel and to ensuring the survival and vibrancy of Jewish people and communities worldwide,” said JDC President Penny Blumenstein and CEO Alan H. Gill, in a statement. “A cornerstone of JDC’s global operations for more than four decades, Ralph was an iconic and transformative figure who embodied the notion that all ‘Jews are responsible for one another’ throughout his long and extraordinary life.”

“His passing leaves a tremendous void, but also a priceless legacy that will sustain JDC, Israel, and the Jewish world well into the future,” they said. Goldman, was most honored at JDC’s centennial celebration in Jerusalem in May.

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