The first time I met Ralph Goldman—who died last week in Jerusalem at the age of 100—was in 1949, in my family’s small Tel Aviv apartment, on Israel’s first independence day. He and my late father, Avraham Harman, downed shot after shot of Stock brandy toasting David Ben-Gurion. “I won’t tell you what happened next,” Ralph said with a nostalgic smile a few months ago, “but we continued to drink and drink and drink le’Duv’che long enough that I got sick later. And from that first friendship, we became family.” It was the beginning of a lifelong bond, based—in many ways—on our families’ shared passion for the Jewish State.
Born in the Ukraine and raised in Boston, Ralph spent his life between New York, Jerusalem, and wherever there were Jews in need. He was the quintessential Jewish civil servant. An ardent Zionist from youth, he was an early visitor to Palestine in 1937. His resolve to help bring a Jewish State into being was magnified during his service in World War II and in displaced persons camps in postwar Europe. Soon after his military demobilization, he began working clandestinely—alongside Teddy Kollek, Al Schwimmer, and other Haganah agents—stockpiling arms and ammunition for the state-to-be. Operating out of a small hotel in midtown Manhattan—Hotel 14—they secured funds, bought, begged, and dispatched arms, often illegally and largely from discarded war surpluses. These were immediately put to use by Israel’s fledgling army and were vital to tipping the scales in the War of Independence.
Immediately following its hard-won independence, Israel—then a tiny country with a shaky economy and a rapidly growing, impoverished population of immigrants—now faced the arduous task of nation building. Ralph was asked to head up the Technical Assistance Department in Prime Minister David Ben Gurion’s office. From there he orchestrated foreign aid from the U.S. government and the United Nations’ specialized agencies, overseeing many essential national infrastructure projects, such as the provision of water, basic food, milk and inoculation campaigns for children.
With Israel firmly on the road to social and economic improvement, Ralph turned his attention to the young country’s educational and cultural life. As the head of the America-Israel Cultural Foundation and the Israel Education Fund, he had a hand in establishing and developing central cultural institutions of the country—museums, orchestras, comprehensive schools. Based in New York at the time, Ralph was the “go to” person for a great many of Israel’s ambitious endeavors.
Before long, Ralph returned to Jerusalem to take over Malben, the umbrella organization responsible for working with the country’s aged, a great many of them who were survivors of World War II. An arm of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Malben’s policies and programs rendered Israel’s services for the elderly among the most advanced internationally. Under Ralph’s leadership, Malben morphed into JDC Israel, now known as The Joint—a central non-governmental agency sponsoring programs in health, education, and welfare, and cementing the strong bridge between American Jewry and Israel.
In his final career change, Ralph took over the leadership of the AJJDC worldwide and added the relief and rehabilitation of distressed Jewish communities everywhere to his purview. His stewardship of the organization brought him and Joint officials into dozens of communities, many of which subsequently relocated to Israel. Led by Ralph, the Joint spearheaded the revival of Soviet Jewry, was a key player in the exodus of Ethiopia’s Falasha Jews, and worked behind the scenes to extricate the remnants of Syrian and Yemenite communities from oppressive regimes. He never left the Joint, continuing to work as its guiding spirit up until his last days. When the history of the Joint is written, Ralph’s central role and influence will permeate every page of the saga.
Throughout his career, Ralph also sought to prepare the next generation of Jewish civil servants. He mentored numerous young people who today populate the Jewish communal world. Everyone whose life Ralph touched, whether as a mentor, colleague, or ally, saw in him a real friend with a genuine concern for the life of others. Ralph’s devotion to the Jewish world and his loyalty and concern for his colleagues of all ages were rivaled only by his unconditional and boundless love for his own family—his wife Helen, who followed and supported him, and his three children, Judy, David (murdered in the bombing of the Israel Embassy in Argentina where he was Deputy Ambassador), and Didi. They—and all of us who knew and loved him, along with the countless people who benefitted from his labors—have lost a remarkable friend, visionary, and benefactor. He has left us an enormous legacy.
David Harman is a professor of education in Israel and former chief scientist of the JDC.