In a rare quiet moment, John Ruskay, who is stepping down at the end of the month after 15 years as CEO and executive vice president of UJA-Federation of New York, sat in his office on East 59th Street and described his feelings these days as “running in a relay race, trying to hand the baton” to his successor, Eric Goldstein, as seamlessly as possible.
That baton, in effect, is the world’s largest local charity, a complex organization with a staff of 475 people, which raises more than $140 million a year for a wide range of local, national and international causes. More than that, it is the central symbol of a Jewish federation system that champions the notion of collective giving and caring, based on the deep-rooted but increasingly challenged belief that all Jews are responsible for one another.
For Ruskay, 67, who served in senior positions at UJA-Federation for more than seven years before taking over the top professional spot, it has been quite a race. There have been wars and crises in the Mideast, natural and financial disasters at home, and the steady erosion of his donor base as a younger generation distances itself from the communal affiliations of its parents and grandparents.
But in a wide-ranging interview in advance of a major June 18 tribute dinner to him at the Waldorf Astoria, he reflected on the high and low points of his tenure, and looked to the future. Ruskay asserted his conviction that “creating inspired and caring communities” — his mantra — will produce “engaged Jews who will respond creatively and boldly to the challenges of the Jewish community.
“There has been both erosion and renewal,” he said, “and the question is whether we can reverse the contraction” in the percentage of those who identify Jewishly. “The outcome is uncertain,” he acknowledged. “Can we seize the moment of extraordinary Jewish opportunity? Can we make our work sufficiently inspiring so that Jews will choose to join us because of the meaning, purpose and community we provide?”
Through his own work and personality, Ruskay has been an inspiration to many. His successor, attorney and longtime UJA-Federation lay leader Goldstein, praised him for “his vision, passion, creativity and enthusiasm” for people and for the mission at hand.
As he nears the finish line, Ruskay is viewed by colleagues, peers and close observers of Jewish communal life as the leader in his field. During his tenure he has helped UJA-Federation raise more than $3 billion, and he has helped grow its endowment fund from $330 million to close to $1 billion. Beyond the dollars, though, he is admired for his combination of wisdom, warmth and wit, and his ability to raise money and spirits through a clear vision and strong guidance, all of it infused with a deeply Jewish soul.
I am less than an objective observer here. Ruskay and I go back more than 36 years, having met at the annual General Assembly of the federation movement in Dallas in 1977. He worked at the time for CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, under Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, and I was editor of the Baltimore Jewish Times. In the ensuing years we served for a time together on the board of a fund for Jewish investigative journalism. Our mutual respect, trust and collegial friendship has stood us in good stead during the last two decades when, in our respective positions at UJA-Federation and The Jewish Week, we have endured some difficult times in the ongoing and inevitable love-hate relationship between a community’s federation and its independent newspaper. Through it all he has acted with integrity, thoughtfulness and compassion.
During our recent discussions on his stepping down, Ruskay displayed those same qualities, and one sensed a feeling in him of satisfaction, tinged with nostalgia, for what he has accomplished.
So Different From 1999
He had originally planned to retire in 2011, but was asked by his lay leadership to stay on another three years to ride out the financial crisis set off by the Madoff scandal in late 2008. He feels that both professionally and personally, “the time is right to step back” now, with UJA-Federation “strong,” and with his wife, Robin Bernstein, having recently retired after 15 years as CEO and president of the Educational Alliance, one of about 100 agencies that receive funding from UJA-Federation.
He cited the fact that both his first wife, Shira, and his father, Everett Ruskay, died at the age of 52, and he wants to have time for “a next chapter” — possibly writing, teaching, enrolling in courses and spending more time with family — while also taking on several strategic consulting projects and serving in his emeritus position at UJA-Federation.
Ruskay noted that when he became CEO of the charity in 1999, the zeitgeist was very different from today on two key fronts.
One was in regards to Israel. At the outset of his tenure he spoke out about the need to envision the challenges of a Jewish community in a post-crisis Middle East. The Oslo peace process was at a high point at the time, and the new leader contemplated a federation campaign to help Israel at peace, create new industries at home and focus on resolving social tensions.
“I was prematurely luxuriating on the notion of ‘peace at hand,’” he recalled, adding that the ensuing intifada and failure of Oslo was “a great disappointment” that has led to “entrenched views and deeper divides” within the Jewish community. He said he regrets the “promiscuous name-calling on both sides” of the dove-hawk debate, adding that we as a community lack the ability “to hear different voices” with respect, though our sages tell us that “a verse of Torah can be interpreted in many ways.”
The other major change from 15 years ago was that the federation system of centralized communal giving became viewed as old-school, passé and waning, with the alternative — direct, hands-on giving — on the ascendancy.
“Our 1998 campaign was in decline, and every pundit said that the federations’ best days were behind them,” he remembered. Today, that holds true in many communities, as younger Jews have shown a preference for smaller organizations and more direct involvement. But with Ruskay, an outspoken and sometimes lonely defender of the traditional system, New York has not only held the line but advanced the cause.
“I was a voice countering the concept of ‘boutique giving,’ even in this building,” he said. “I argued that donors don’t need us to just pass the money along.” Federation’s role, he said, was to “move the agenda” in caring for Jews anywhere they are in need. That was done in part through partnership with the government of Israel, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Joint Distribution Committee, which address overseas needs.
UJA-Federation’s mobilization in response to crises — from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans to Hurricane Sandy in New York, and from Israeli military engagements with Hamas, to launching Connect To Care programs, an elaborate social service program launched in response to the recession — highlighted the speed and depth that only a major federation could accomplish.
‘It’s Hard To Love A Federation’
Among the other achievements during his tenure that Ruskay noted were transforming federation’s relationship with synagogues from competition for donors to true partnership in strengthening Jewish identity; creating a Jewish hospice system in New York; providing seed money to a wide range of start-up projects here and in Israel; and warming up the culture within “59th Street,” as the building is known, by improving work conditions and morale.
But he acknowledged disappointments as well.
He said it has been “very difficult to move the philanthropic needle in areas like Jewish education and identity. It remains far easier to raise funds in response to poverty and crisis.”
Similarly, Ruskay said that he is “not sure we moved the needle on heart-share,” suggesting that while the federation is committed to “chesed [charitable acts], chinuch [Jewish learning] and Clal Yisrael [Jewish peoplehood], it’s hard to love a federation,” whose image is often one of a sprawling bureaucracy more focused on big dollars than good deeds.
He compared the situation to Americans loving beautiful sites like Yosemite and Yellowstone, but feeling little passion for the Department of Interior — even though the department manages the national parks.
“What keeps me up at night,” Ruskay said, “is the status quo in the Middle East,” which he sees as a dangerous proposition for Jerusalem; the level of “poverty among the affluence in our community;" and the findings of surveys like the Pew Research Center and the federation’s own New York population study that indicate a growth among the extremes on the left and right — namely ‘no affiliation’ and fundamentalist Orthodox — and a decline within the center, the core constituency of federation.
But in the end Ruskay remains an optimist. He is convinced that caring communities will attract caring Jews, and feels blessed to have been in his post, which he describes as “energizing, mostly inspiring, and only limited by hours, and at times, exhaustion.” As for his time spent soliciting donors, he says: “I may be delusional but I have viewed” that aspect as “less about asking people for funds than enabling them to do mitzvot.”
It’s what he believes, and is no doubt a key to his success.
Gary Rosenblatt has been the editor and publisher of The Jewish Week for 20 years and has written more than 1,000 "Between The Lines" columns since 1993. Now a collection of 80 of those columns, ranging from Mideast analysis to childhood remembrances as "the Jewish rabbi's son" in Annapolis, Md., is available. Click here for details.