(JTA) — Most Jews have never heard of, let alone ever met, Ralph I. Goldman.
But for countless numbers of us throughout the world, Ralph — a former chief executive of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) — played a role in our freedom, our positive Jewish identity, our dedication to the neediest among us. He was also instrumental in the State of Israel’s birth, its growth and success, its cultural and educational institutions, and its strong social fabric.
Indeed, he was one of the greatest advocates for the Jewish people and Israel, their constant companion in times of need, and their warmest compatriot in times of elation.
They just didn’t know it.
Because this 100-year old man, who passed away in Jerusalem on Tuesday, was more focused on our well-being, on creating opportunities for us to embrace our Jewish identity and on Israel’s bright future than on bolstering his own reputation.
And his life’s work and ongoing legacy are reasons to pause, and celebrate, even as we mourn his passing.
Ralph, who was born in Ukraine in 1914, was an early builder of the State of Israel — a brave and deliberate Jewish leader who cracked open communist Europe to revive Jewish life in places where the Soviets strived so very hard to eradicate it.
He also worked with a full heart to strengthen ancient Jewish communities in places from Morocco to Mumbai. Ralph, who at the time of his death remained an honorary executive vice president of JDC, was the living embodiment of the Talmudic precept that “all Jews are responsible for one another.”
He was a trusted adviser and friend to Israeli leaders, including David Ben-Gurion, Shimon Peres and Teddy Kollek. He encouraged, trained and guided hundreds of Jewish leaders who have taken leading roles in their communities from America to Ukraine to Hungary.
Ralph also was a mentor to many young Jewish innovators. He took delight in forming strong bonds with the distinguished cohort of Ralph I. Goldman Fellows — people working in Jewish communities around the globe to better lives and influence our collective Jewish future. And I was personally privileged to have Ralph as a mentor for the last two decades.
He was a father, a husband, a grandparent, a dear friend and in his iconic bowtie the consummate gentleman.
We live in a world today where giants of Ralph’s stature are few and very far between. He possessed a quiet determination that put action and deed before rhetoric and people ahead of propaganda.
Nowhere can that been seen more poignantly than in a legendary photograph of Ralph and Ben-Gurion that for decades has delighted all who see it. It shows Ralph, a close adviser to the first Israeli prime minister, humbly helping him into his jacket before attending a meeting in New York in the 1950s.
Today that gesture seems foreign and perhaps even a little old-fashioned, but it was Ralph to the core. He was always there behind the scenes, pushing forward to ensure the best interests of a people and a state that were central to his being.
So as we celebrate Sukkot in the coming days, I urge us all to take a moment to remember the man who provided shelter, joy and encouragement to so many, even if they never knew his name. We are his legacy, an everlasting monument to his boundless devotion.
Thank you, Ralph.
(Alan H. Gill is CEO of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.)