On July 1, when Eric Goldstein reports to work for the first time on East 59th Street as CEO and executive vice president of UJA-Federation of New York, he will be very familiar with his surroundings.
The 54-year-old Wall Street attorney and native of New York has been intensely involved in UJA-Federation activities for 25 years as a lay leader, and in 2013 was named vice chair.
On Friday morning, in his first sit-down interview since being elected the day before to head the world’s largest local charity, he spoke of his priorities and concerns as well as his experience, citing a number of UJA-Federation committees, task forces and projects he has led, including the Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal, the lawyers division and the global strategy task force.
He refuted the criticism from some quarters that he was an “outside” choice, having not come through the professional ranks of Jewish communal service.
“It’s a false premise,” he said. “I don’t come in as a stranger. I’ve given Jewish organizations hundreds of hours a year for many years and I have a deep understanding of UJA-Federation” from the inside, where he said he has been particularly active for the last four years.
Why not continue his active involvement as a volunteer?
“When I first considered taking this critical post, I did my `Hamlet’ thing for awhile,” he said, trying to make up his mind. “I had expected to practice law a few years longer. But after weighing the pros and cons I felt this was a wonderful opportunity,” too good to pass up.
A tall, handsome man with an air of confidence, easy smile and pleasant demeanor, Goldstein was the unanimous choice of the UJA-Federation search committee, chaired by the charity’s president, Alisa Doctoroff, after an intensive international search. She explained that he was chosen because “three key pieces came together.” They were his reputation as an attorney, his tireless commitment to the Jewish community and the key leadership positions he held within the charity.
John Ruskay, current CEO and executive vice president who is widely considered at the top of his field, described Goldstein as “nothing less than brilliant” and someone who “understands who we are now and can lead us toward a vision of who we can be.”
Ruskay will retire at the end of June after 15 years at the helm of UJA-Federation.
At the time of transition in five months, Goldstein will not only be leaving his three-decade-long association with Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, a major law firm where he was a partner, but a number of spots on Jewish lay boards including the Beit Din of America (president for 10 years), Manhattan Day School (chair) and the New York Legal Assistance Group (a Federation agency).
Goldstein praised Ruskay for his “visionary leadership” and said he believes UJA-Federation “is uniquely positioned to capitalize on the opportunities and address the challenges facing the Jewish community today and into the future.”
But he acknowledged that those challenges are significant.
“I don’t use the term ‘crisis’ but I worry about a lot,” he said, from the issues confronting Israel and “the Jewish world” in general to those facing federations, which “have been losing market share” as donations diminish and younger Jews show less interest in affiliating with and contributing to communal organizations. (The New York federation, with its unique size and level of giving, is “an outlier,” Goldstein noted.)
“The trends [for the federated system in general] are disturbing and we need to turn them around by making a compelling case why donating to Federation is essential for Jewish life.” He asserted that with its network of agencies and commitment and ability to support a wide range of social services here and around the world, the federation model is “the closest thing we have to a kehillah [traditionally, a sacred community with a shared purpose].”
But Goldstein noted that “we need to increase our donor rolls,” which have decreased to about 60,000 from about 80,000 a decade ago. “If you represent a kehillah, your donors have to be your constituents.”
Well aware of recent studies that show a weakening of Conservative and Reform Jews, who form the core of federation support, and of indications that more than 20 percent of Jews say they have no religion, Goldstein said the data is “alarming.
“We need more and better educated Jews,” he said, and that means providing “content deep enough to inspire young people looking for meaning in their lives.”
He agreed that “a significant number of Jewish organizations and leaders don’t see [the studies’ data] as a problem,” but he said it will take “an enormous effort” to reverse the trend.
He also said “we need to do a better job of connecting our JCCs and synagogues and other organizations that do too much in isolation.” He believes UJA-Federation can “weave them together” into a more cohesive community of services.
“I worry about the fraying of our community,” he said, noting that on the Upper West Side, where he lives, “we have synagogues [of different denominations] that have nothing to do with each other.”
Regarding Israel, he expressed concern that the 90 percent of the Jews in the U.S are not Orthodox feel alienated by a religious establishment in Jerusalem that views their practices as less than authentic.
“I am hopeful that the Chief Rabbinate will be more respectful of all streams of Judaism,” he said.
Goldstein himself is a proud and highly active Modern Orthodox Jew. He belongs to four shuls in his neighborhood and sometimes prays at and supports a fifth. He said he feels a special responsibility to encourage his religious peers to become involved in the federation world, noting that they are “under-represented.”
“I tell them that UJA-Federation is the best kept secret in town,” particularly with respect to its support for day schools, a critical concern for Orthodox parents with children in yeshivas and day schools and facing high tuition costs. He said UJA-Federation is “doing more for the day school community than any other organization today,” noting its funding of millions of dollars through the Jewish Education Project, teacher benefits via the Gruss Foundation, lobbying in Albany for government benefits, and a more than three-year effort to create a Day School Challenge Fund, which Goldstein chairs.
“I think these efforts reflect UJA-Federation’s commitment to day schools,” said Goldstein, whose four children are the product of day school education.
Rabbi Joshua Lookstein, who worked closely with Goldstein on the Day School Challenge Fund for several years, describes the CEO-elect as “the consummate mentsch, most often the smartest person in the room but a fantastic listener, very patient.”
Rabbi Lookstein, who at the time was on the professional staff at UJA-Federation and is now head of school at Westchester Day School, said Goldstein was “absolutely tireless” in his devotion to his UJA-Federation volunteer work, “which made the professionals work even harder.
“It was a total partnership between professional and volunteer,” Lookstein said. “He valued what we brought to the table and vice versa.”
He added that Goldstein had fundraising experience at UJA-Federation and that “he never comes in unprepared, and he is fearless – he truly believes he is offering the potential donor an opportunity to join in a remarkable effort.”