Peyrets Goldmacher, widely known as the patriarch of the Russian-American Jewish community, died on Jan. 27 of congrestive heart failure, four days before his 92nd birthday.
At a funeral service held Jan. 31 at Sinai Chapels in Flushing, Queens, not far from his home in Forest Hills, luminaries of the New York Russian Jewish community hailed Goldmacher as a skilled and selfless organizer and communal leader who helped many newly arrived Russian Jewish émigrés to find jobs in their professions in the U.S., and convinced Russian Jews to organize grass-roots organizations and connect with the larger American Jewish community.
Goldmacher’s life story is a stirring saga of survival that was characterized by lifelong efforts to preserve and strengthen Jewish and Zionist values among Soviet Jews. Born in 1920 in the town of Bendery, Bessarabia, (then under the control of Romania) to middle-class parents, Goldmacher became involved in Zionist activities as a teenager. Goldmacher and his wife-to-be Basya Kishinevskaya became leaders of the Hashomer Hatzair (Young Guard) movement in Bessarabia and took part in hachshara, (agricultural training in preparation for life in Palestine.)
However, on June 28, 1940, several months before the young couple was scheduled to depart on aliyah, the Soviet Union invaded and occupied Bessarabia; the move instantly ended the possibility of aliyah for Peyrets, Basya and many other young Jews. On June 13, 1941, Peyrets, his parents and siblings (but without his new wife Batya) were arrested by the KGB, sentenced to 10 years of internal exile, and placed on a train to Siberia. Actually, this act of repression likely saved their lives, since Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union only nine days later and quickly overran Bessarabia.
After surviving amid brutal conditions in the northern Siberian town of Khanty-Mansisk and being miraculously reunited with Basya in 1943, Goldmacher was allowed to enter Omsk Engineering Institute. In 1951, two years after he graduated, Goldmacher and his wife were allowed to move to the city of Chrernovsty in western Ukraine. There, over the ensuing 25 years, he showed his organizational skills by taking over the management of a small plant and turning it into a large industrial combine. He also renewed his Zionist activities, teaching Hebrew to young Russian Jews in an underground ulpan.
Goldmacher was allowed to emigrate to the U.S. in 1979, following his son Joseph who had left the Soviet Union two years earlier. Arriving in New York in 1979 at the age of 58 with little money and no English, Goldmacher soon found work at a firm producing gold jewelry in Manhattan and became chief engineer at the Joel Meisner Fine Art Foundry, Inc. in Farmingdale, L.I., where he worked until his retirement in 1994.
Within a year of his arrival, Goldmacher founded the Association of Engineers and Scientists for New Americans (AES), to help other newly arrived engineers and scientists to find work in their fields. He followed the creation of AES, the first such Russian Jewish self-help organization, with the founding of the Jewish Union of Russian Immigrants (JURI) to focus on the cultural and Jewish educational needs of the more than 100,000 Soviet Jewish émigrés who had arrived in New York in the 1970s; many of them felt looked down upon and patronized by local synagogues and mainstream Jewish organizations.
Over the course of the ensuing decades, Goldmacher convinced local colleges, universities and city and state agencies to offer training and job placement to Russian Jewish émigrés; he helped initiate other grassroots Russian Jewish organizations and relentlessly badgered Jewish establishment organizations to offer them financial support.
Goldmacher’s persistence paid off in the early 2000s when UJA-Federation of New York set up an umbrella body known as the Council of Jewish Émigré Community Organizations (COJECO), and for the first time offered substantial funding to the grassroots Russian organizations that composed it. At the same time, the American Jewish Committee set up a Russian Division that offered leadership training to Russian Jewish community activists.
Thanks in large part to the efforts of Goldmacher and his followers, the psychological disconnect between Russian-speaking Jews, who by then made up more than 20 percent of New York Jewry, and their American-born cousins receded noticeably. Russian Jews became among the staunchest advocates of the American Jewish agenda, especially on Israel-related issues.
After Basya’s passing two years ago, Goldmacher devoted himself to the writing of a four-volume opus on the history of the Zionist movement and the liberation struggle of Soviet Jewry. The second volume of that massive work, “Lessons of Political Zionism,” was published in Russian and English last year by Liberty Publishing House.
According to Anna Goldberg, executor of Goldmacher’s literary will, he signed off on the final proofs of the Russian language version of the first, largely autobiographical, volume, titled “Let My People Go,” on the morning of Jan. 27, only a few hours before passing away. “Peyrets was in a terribly weakened condition, but insisted on working until the last moment because he saw these books as his gift to the Jewish people,” Goldberg said.
Peyrets Goldmacher is survived by his son Joseph Goldmacher, his nephew Victor Goldmacher, their spouses, and by grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Speaking at Goldmacher’s funeral, Mikhail Nemirovsky, editor in chief of the Russian-Jewish weekly Forum, said, “Peyrets was not only the patriarch and symbol of the Russian-speaking community, but was also our teacher. I try to pattern myself on him.”
Sam Kliger, director of Russian-Jewish affairs at the American Jewish Committee, said he “was privileged to work closely with him for 20 years to fulfill our common dream of bringing Russian Jews to the center of the American Jewish community.”
New York State Assemblyman Alec Brook-Krasny, the first member of the Russian speaking community to win elective office, remarked, “Peyrets did so much to provide opportunities to Russian Jews of all ages and backgrounds. He built a bridge between the Russian and American Jewish communities.”
Inna Arolovitch, an engineer who is past president of the American Association of Jews from the Former Soviet Union (AAJFSU), said, “Peyrets established connections in colleges and universities and organized courses for émigré engineers and scientists from which I and so many others benefited. He planted the seeds of many organizations and then watched them grow.”
In a message read at the funeral, American Jewish Committee executive vice president David Harris, who was travelling abroad, wrote, “Peyrets came to me with an appeal that American Jewish organizations open doors to Russian Jews. In this effort, he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.”
Rabbi Albert Thaler of Temple Gates of Prayer in Flushing, where Goldmacher was a member for over 30 years, said, “If I was to write a book like John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage today, Peyrets would be the first person I would write about. Several times, he lost everything, but each time, he summoned the strength, determination and confidence to start over and achieve much.”