'American philanthropy is no longer existential to Israel's survival' - NY UJA-Federation CEO

His dedication to the Jewish community spans several years, marked by active involvement in numerous senior volunteer positions prior to his appointment as UJA-Federation’s CEO.

 The Kirsh Jerusalem Campus for the Arts, supported by the UJA-Federation of New York (photo credit: Courtesy UJA-Federation of New York)
The Kirsh Jerusalem Campus for the Arts, supported by the UJA-Federation of New York
(photo credit: Courtesy UJA-Federation of New York)

Eric S. Goldstein, the chief executive officer of the UJA-Federation of New York, the largest local philanthropy organization in the world, has been a formidable force in Jewish giving. His dedication to the Jewish community spans several years, marked by active involvement in numerous senior volunteer positions prior to his appointment as UJA-Federation’s CEO in 2014.

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Before joining UJA, he forged a successful career as a leading partner at one of the world's most prominent law firms, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, and served as vice chair of UJA’s board, a member of UJA’s Executive Committee, and chair of UJA’s Lawyers Division, among other roles. He also held positions on the boards of various institutions such as Manhattan Day School, the New York Legal Assistance Group, the Beth Din of America, the Ramaz School, and DOROT. In 2013, his significant contributions were recognized with the Torch of Learning Award from American Friends of the Hebrew University.

Throughout his tenure, Goldstein has capitalized on his broad experience to strengthen UJA-Federation's strategic vision, expand its community reach, and uphold its deep commitment to Jewish values and humanitarian aid.

TML: What is most on your heart as Israel is entering its 75th [anniversary]? Thousands of people have shown up from not just America, but [also] countries around the world to show solidarity and to celebrate.

Goldstein: Look, I have very mixed emotions. I remember when we were planning Israel at 75. We were planning this during the height of COVID, and there was this sense described that Israel at 75 would be a post-COVID period.

 UJA-Federation of New York CEO Eric S. Goldstein at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem (credit: Courtesy UJA-Federation of New York) UJA-Federation of New York CEO Eric S. Goldstein at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem (credit: Courtesy UJA-Federation of New York)

Israel was doing terribly well. [There was the] Abraham Accords advancement. Israel’s economy was very strong. I think there was a sense that Israel at 75 was going to be this unalloyed celebration of the miracle that is the modern-day state of Israel at 75.

In many respects, it is a miracle that it is the modern state of Israel at 75. In so many ways it is extraordinary to marvel at the achievements. On the other hand, you cannot forget the moment we are in. The scenes we are witnessing every Saturday night. The rhetoric, the scenes in Knesset. So, it is both an extraordinary achievement [and] Israel has some significant unresolved challenges ahead. So, both a sense of elation and a sense of concern. Big concern.

TML: You see the demonstrations happening on the judicial reforms and you even see a split amongst your own people on that particular issue. So how do you, as head of a Federation in New York, deal with these kinds of issues?

Goldstein: Look, I think that generally it is the case [that] Federations are reluctant to get engaged around internal Israeli issues. And then there are issues that are just so significant where you feel the need to say something, recognizing at the same time [that] we do not live here. That is not a science of what the dividing line is.

I wrote publicly about my deep concerns about the legislation in late January because I was very concerned that if the legislation passed as it was then proposed, it would lead to a significant erosion in connection between American Jews and Israel—at least large segments of American Jews and Israel.

American Jews are not a monolithic group anywhere, not in the United States [as a whole], not in New York [in particular]. But a significant segment of American Jews would feel a continuing, growing sense of disconnection. Therefore, I thought it was important to express that concern, but also at the same time to say to American Jews who are concerned, look, the right answer here is not to walk away from Israel, but in fact to double down on Israel.

Just like we would not walk away if there was a particular [US] administration if we disagree, the same is true here. Israel is vital to the vibrancy and security of the Jewish people, and so we need to do everything we can so that Israel is the Jewish and democratic land that we want it to be.

TML: Looking at Israel’s 75 into the next decade, what are the most important issues? And forget judicial reforms for the moment. [What are the things] that you feel are really critical to not just the American Jews but the Jews of the New York metropolitan area?

Goldstein: Look, I think that Israel—and by the way, many of these issues of course are relevant in America. They just manifest [differently]. It is certainly a very different country with different demographics, but Israel right now seems [to] have subgroups that with deep animosity are one against the other, and you lose the ability to see across differences. I think the critical, most [important] single issue is to find a way to talk across differences, and not demonize those differences.

TML: Can you give an example? Be specific.

Goldstein: We can take the current situation, that there are people who are still very much supportive of this legislation and there is intense anger at those who oppose it. And obviously intense anger the other way as well. Then again, I am not trying to be Pollyannaish and saying that everybody needs to get along, but I think that we have lost the ability to show political courage, to really engage with the other, recognizing that the consequences of this kind of demonizing rhetoric and hostility—and really, anger—is very dangerous for the country.

President [Isaac] Herzog said at the speech you were at, “Our greatest existential threat is not external, it is internal. It is one against the other.” And I absolutely believe that he is correct about that.

TML: What do you think will change it?

Goldstein: It is possible that this moment will change it. I mean, I think that you have seen an extraordinary depth of feeling. People are talking about democracy. You are seeing now an enormous expression in the community of people who are concerned about democracy, who are concerned about the creation of constitutional reforms.

You see groups protesting that are not all of one subgroup. You are seeing broad, diverse groups who are coming together, and it may be creating a shifting political map. Time will tell, but I think the key is—for us in America—we see this country as critical to our future and have a very significant invested stake.

I personally have two children living here [in Israel]. I have a grandchild living here, and I am very much tied up in what happens here, and you just hope that what has come out in this four-month period will ultimately lead people to come back from the abyss and find a compromise and a path forward.

TML: Looking at Israel, and looking at the partnerships you have with many cities in Israel, what are you most proud of?

Goldstein: You see the impact of American investment—Federation investment—in Israel everywhere you go. I do not mean that as a pat on the back, but the UJA Federation represents a merger of two entities, one of which is the UJA, which was created for the express purpose of first investing in a pre-state Israel in 1939. And since that time, our New York Federation has literally invested billions and billions of dollars in having a thriving, vibrant state of Israel.

Everywhere you look, both in terms of capital projects [and] buildings, to programs, to communities, you see the imprint of American philanthropy. Obviously, the nature of American philanthropy today towards Israel is different. For a very long time, in Israel’s early years, American philanthropy was existential to Israel’s survival. It needed American philanthropy to build the state to defend itself.

TML: Has that changed over the years?

Goldstein: Yes, it has changed! Blessedly!

Blessedly, American philanthropy is no longer existential to Israel’s survival, in ways that should make us feel incredibly proud. I think that we are a part of the reason that it is the case that Israel today is an incredibly prosperous country in so many ways. So, I think American philanthropy is still very important, but it is really more to support the needs of the most vulnerable people in periphery communities, but also to see non-Orthodox gateways to Jewish life and give them greater legitimacy here. By the way, I am Modern Orthodox.

This is in no way to judge things on Orthodoxy, but it is to recognize that there is a very developed host of funding—much of it from the government—to support Orthodox life in Israel. And we believe that there needs to be, as there are in America, multiple gateways to Jewish engagement and for the people to decide what gateway towards Jewish engagement they are most comfortable with, and then to do all we can to legitimate all of the expressions of Judaism here, all streams of Judaism here.

Of course, the goal is for American Jewry to feel as connected to Israel, and obviously an important part of that is the sense that they are perceived as being totally, genuinely, authentically Jewish like everyone else. So, those are very important priorities beyond the social service needs.

We think it is an incredible lesson and an achievement that Israel is no longer so dependent on world Jewish philanthropy to sustain itself.

TML: Two big issues do remain. One is the abundance of antisemitism. And the issue that Israel does not hold the same place to youth for many young people going to universities. They would rather travel the world, and Israel is not it. So, I would like to have you expand upon those two [issues] and how the [UJA] Federation plays a role in any of it.

Goldstein: Sure. So, on antisemitism, certainly, the growing antisemitism in America is something that historically, you know, even eight or ten years ago, was hardly on our radar screen. To the extent that we focused on antisemitism it was much more, how do we support the Jews of Europe? And in fact, we sent funds for all sorts of programs to develop a more resilient European Jewish community.

I started in this role in 2014, and I remember that shortly thereafter there were these riots in a suburb of Paris, Sarcelles, where a group of Islamic young people surrounded a synagogue, and we went on a solidarity mission to support the beleaguered Jews of Paris.

I remember at the time thinking it is terrible that it is happening in Europe but feeling much more sanguine about the state of affairs in America. Well, I still do think that there are significant differences. I still do think that the topsoil is different in America, and there is a lot of affection for the Jewish community.

There is no question that antisemitism has a much stronger presence in America, by the way, making the importance of a Jewish homeland as a place of security, and, God forbid, as a place of refuge, all the more important. So, the growing antisemitism that exists in the world is just a further reason, irrespective of whether you like a particular government or not, to be motivated to be engaged to support and strengthen Israel.

TML: Were students…?

Goldstein: Yeah, it is no question generational. I grew up—I remember the Six-Day War. I have vivid memories of the Yom Kippur War, and so for me, Israel is not a given. You are right, I think that generationally, there is not the same connection that [older] generations had. It is a different kind of connection than I had, and I think that in certain respects they no longer perceive Israel as the David of the region, but as the Goliath, notwithstanding that they are surrounded on every border by potential enemies.

And so, it is a growing challenge, which is why we do so many things and try to connect the youth—with Birthright experiences and high schools—[and] bring in Israelis and send in shlichim [Israeli emissaries], the best and the brightest, to engage in our local communities, not only with the younger generation.

But there is no question that there is a real challenge. There is something of a dissonance between some of the youth’s views of what a liberal democracy should be like, and certain other policies being advanced, and so it fit here, and so it creates a growing challenge, but one we have to continue to work at because it is vital.

Notwithstanding all of the challenges, I think that there still are significant majorities of our youth who feel very positively about Israel.

We certainly need to not be complacent and spend time focusing on how you engage younger people in America with Israel.

TML: There are a lot of issues simultaneously as Israel turns 75. How do you prioritize?

 The Arab-Jewish Center for Empowerment, Equality, and Cooperation, supported by the UJA-Federation of New York, distributed hygiene and game kits to Bedouin families at various sites around Israel's Negev Desert during the coronavirus crisis (credit: Courtesy UJA-Federation of New York) The Arab-Jewish Center for Empowerment, Equality, and Cooperation, supported by the UJA-Federation of New York, distributed hygiene and game kits to Bedouin families at various sites around Israel's Negev Desert during the coronavirus crisis (credit: Courtesy UJA-Federation of New York)

Goldstein: Well, to be sure, there are a lot of issues. First of all, we believe in the critical importance of connecting our community in Israel through experiences. We spend millions of dollars a year bringing the Jews of New York, both young and old, to Israel. We are increasingly aware that it is a two-way street, and that Israelis need to have a much broader understanding than most do about American Jewry.

Between [Israeli Jews and American Jews], we are roughly 90+% of the world Jewish community, and it is critical that we maintain the connections. I am amazed at how we bring in [members of Knesset] into America, and how many of them have never been to America [beforehand] and have never really understood the [dynamics of the relationship between our communities]. They have no sense of perception. They are often incorrect about the reality of American Jewish life.

So, you ask what are the priorities? That is a dramatic priority to create opportunities for American Jews to engage with Israelis, both in Israel and America. I think that in that regard Israeli and Jewish education is important.

By the way, in Israeli schools, you need to start teaching about world Jewry. You [currently] teach about dead Jews, Jews from the Holocaust. But there are many millions of living Jews who they really need to understand from a young age and get a greater understanding so that there is a greater sense of kinship that is created between these two communities, and they really feel a greater sense of connection.

In America, it means, I think, we need to do a better job around Jewish education [as well as] Israel education. And that is different than Israel advocacy. It is Israel education, so that when they go to high schools, and certainly colleges, they are not deer in the headlights when they are confronted with questions that make them want to retreat from their Jewishness, or from their public expressions and support for Israel. So, that is a significant priority.

Obviously, we need to be focused—it is a significant priority—on combating antisemitism. We are not going to defeat antisemitism. Antisemitism has been with us from our very beginnings. It is a question of creating, sort of restoring, firewalls, so that normative antisemitic tropes are no longer the norm.

And then, I think there is a growing focus now on communal security. Five years ago, we did not have a single line item in our budget for communal security, and today we have created, since 2019, a 12-person security team to support the Jewish communal infrastructure and to help support the nearly 2,000 Jewish communal institutions with best practices, [active] shooter training, support in applying for non-profit security grants, and many other things. And serving as a liaison between many institutions and local law enforcement. So that is sadly a growing reality.

At the same time, we cannot lose our social service chesed [lovingkindness] agenda. We, in New York—I think it would shock many people—I think almost 25% of the New York Jewish community lives at or near poverty. That is a shocking, heartbreaking, unacceptable statistic. And we cannot lose the focus on the older social service agenda items either.

I think that in all of this, those all are dramatic priorities going forward, and we give out around $180 million a year in grants that primarily address the areas I just mentioned.

TML: Eric, before I let you go, in looking back at Israel as a state, what struck you as the most important part of Israel’s history? What really stands out to you personally? And who is the hero that you look to in your life?

Goldstein: Let me give you an example of what I think is the most important thing that stands out for me about Israel. It is the fact that Israel exists at all.

We gave over $25 million in emergency support to Ukrainians. I was at the border in Poland, near the Ukrainian border, on days seven and eight of the [Russo-Ukrainian] war, and came back.

First, I saw the refugees. I went with some of them to an airport near Warsaw, where there were hundreds of rooms that were rented by our partner, the Jewish Agency, that were sort of gateways that they were going to stay in for a short time until they got on planes to Israel to make aliyah.

Can you imagine if 80 years ago there had been those hotel rooms and the ability for people to come to Israel? So, I think it is just as fundamental as that. I think that we can never [overstate] as a people how important having a Jewish state is, and I do not think that we can ever take it for granted.

I do not think that there is anything inevitable about Israel at 100 or 125. I think that we need to work to ensure that it remains a vibrant, secure, Jewish and democratic state that is a homeland for all Jews, and that is providing appropriate rights and protections for all of its citizens. There is nothing inevitable about that, and that is hard work. But that for me is as core as you get, but it is the dimension of Israel that is at its essence.

In terms of a person? It is interesting, I was reading [something]. I am not sure this is the most inspiring, but it is what I most recently read. I most recently read the autobiography of Naphtali Lau-Lavie who was in many, many roles in Israel and spent a bunch of time as consul general in New York as well. His brother is the chief rabbi [of Tel Aviv and former chief rabbi of Israel], Rabbi [Yisrael Meir] Lau.

They were both taken from the liberation of Buchenwald and saved. They were liberated from… I do not want to do the entire story, but they were in a pile of bodies, and Rabbi Herschel Schacter, who was the Jewish chaplain, helped liberate [them]. He was in the liberating group in their camp.

[He] saw that in this pile of bodies were live eyes. He pulled them out and took care of them, and that was Rabbi Lau and his brother. The fact that you can go from that to this, it is just an inspiring story to me about [rising from] the ashes to supreme heights.

We can agree with a lot of these politicians. We can disagree with them. I have interviewed a lot of Israel’s most senior leaders. They are heroic. They have been in the most elite army units. And you can agree with them politically or not, but you have to admire the kind of people that this country creates.

So, it is not a single person. I just find the story about the Lau brothers as just a remarkable one, but I see it all around me.

My son, who lives here, is in an army unit. He is a lawyer, but the people that he engages with that I meet—who were born here and served here—are each one more impressive than the next. So, taking away from the moment, and not at all minimizing the challenges ahead, they are incredibly formidable.

The lack of a constitution, and the ability to create one—these are dramatic challenges ahead, but to step back and look at the positive dimensions of this country, boy you can go on and on about them for a long time!