NEW YORK — Soon after John Ruskay took over the helm of UJA-Federation of New York in 1999 he gave a major address based on the notion, then prevalent, that Israel had reached a point in its history when peace seemed imminent.
With the Oslo peace process at its high point, Ruskay said it was time to turn the Jewish communal agenda inward, to needs closer to home.
“I thought we were entering a new world,” he reflected during a recent interview in his East 59th Street office. The occasion was in anticipation of his announcement that he would step down as executive vice president and CEO of the world’s largest local charity on June 30, 2014.
Ruskay was correct back then that the Jewish community was entering “a new world,” but it was not at all the one he’d imagined. Instead, it was a world moving toward chaos and terror rather than order and harmony. Soon to come were the suicide bombings in Israel that became the second intifada; the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. and the resulting war on terror, focusing on Afghanistan and Iraq; and a few years later the worst economic catastrophe in this country since the Great Depression, as anti-Semitism increased in Europe and efforts grew to delegitimize Israel.
Those crises changed not only the focus of Ruskay’s organizational efforts, but his own personal professional career timetable. He had figured that if all went well, he would remain in his post until he turned 65, in 2011.
But when that date approached there was a mood of uncertainty in the community, still struggling through the financial meltdown at home and helping Israel after its recent wars in Lebanon and Gaza.
Ruskay, one of the most admired and respected Jewish communal leaders in America and beyond, was asked by the board of directors of UJA-Federation to extend his stay, and he agreed.
But last week, feeling the time was right for a transition, he shared with his board and staff his plans to step down in 15 months. In his remarks he reflected on the Hebrew word “avodah,” which is generally translated as “work.” He pointed out that it also means “service and prayer,” and said that his position has allowed him “to serve and ideally enable larger segments of our community to connect to both meaning — for some, God — and service.”
“It’s natural, l’dor v’dor [from generation to generation], and time for the next generation to infuse what’s needed here,” Ruskay told me in our conversation, noting that he looks back on his tenure as “deeply fulfilling — wonderful but challenging.”
While pointing out that he still had more than a year of continued, full-tilt work to do, he spoke with pride of the various ways UJA-Federation has responded to the challenges thrust upon it during his tenure — not just in terms of funds raised but in fulfilling its mandate to create, sustain and inspire “caring communities,” a phrase found in virtually all of his messages over the years he has led the charity.
It is not only his mantra, but is the embodiment of his passion to strengthen Jewish life, care for people and place the highest value on community.
Alisa Doctoroff, incoming president of UJA-Federation, told me, “John literally inspires us to actualize our mission, to reach higher.” She said Ruskay “speaks with depth and authenticity, is admired internally and externally and is an unfailing advocate for communal giving in the face of independent, individually directed giving.”
Indeed, at a time when Jewish federations around the country are facing stagnant campaigns and when younger Jews are attracted to smaller, hands-on charities, Ruskay asserts that UJA-Federation “stands against the grain, and contrary to the predictions of most pundits” who say centralized giving is passé. He cites the fact that in the last 14 years UJA-Federation has raised close to $3 billion and grown its endowment from $330 million to $860 million.
Like federations around the country, this federation’s annual campaign has suffered from the tough economic times, including major government cuts to social service agencies, and the number of donors has decreased dramatically in recent years.
But UJA-Federation has shown its unique ability to respond quickly and boldly to emergencies, mobilizing a wide range of services, be they at home or across the world. When terror attacks against Israelis became common during the second intifada, the charity helped launch the Israel Trauma Center, helping victims and training professional responders. Closer to home, the recession prompted the charity to launch Connect to Care, an initiative providing a wide range of services around the city for people out of work. And when Superstorm Sandy hit last fall, millions of dollars were set aside to help restore damaged communities and souls.
“The common thread in all of the success is John’s visionary leadership,” said Jerry Levin, who will complete his term as president of UJA-Federation at the end of June. He credited Ruskay’s “extraordinary capabilities to think about the future” in determining the community’s needs and how best to meet them, and putting together a team of top lay and professional leaders to execute the plans.
Their skills are sure to be tested as the community, according to last year’s federation-sponsored population study, is increasingly divided between two extremes, with growing numbers of both unaffiliated and Orthodox Jews.
One of the major innovations Ruskay brought to UJA-Federation, which he on occasion compares to a large ship that turns slowly, was an internal restructuring that focused on funding based on need rather than specific agencies. (The charity works with nearly 100 network beneficiary agencies, synagogues and other Jewish organizations.)
The shift from institutional allocations to addressing what he called the “sacred agenda,” seeking partnerships and inclusion, was indicative of his effort to give social service a moral, even spiritual, dimension.
There was, inevitably, criticism along the way. Some said the federation was too slow to establish a Jewish hospice, address disabilities, integrate Russian immigrants or tackle the day school tuition crisis, but when it did, it did so in a big way. And it showed courage in taking the lead in funding a wide range of innovative startup projects, from Bikkurim, which advances new Jewish ideas, to Heeb, a hip publication that embarrassed charity funders with its raunchy material. (Heeb’s funding was not renewed.)
There are also times when the federation is caught in the middle of the community’s divide over Israel’s policies, like whether or not to sponsor a film festival highlighting the daily lives of its Arab citizens. In a 2011 Opinion column in The Jewish Week, Ruskay called for more debate, and tolerance, on both sides. He asserted that “by pressuring and attempting to constrain people and institutions that present views different than our own, opportunities to engage and educate are stifled.”
After Ruskay leaves his full-time job, he plans to spend more time with his family, including picking up his grandchildren from school, and taking advantage of the educational and cultural offerings of his Upper West Side neighborhood, from Lincoln Center to the Jewish Theological Seminary (where he was vice chancellor for eight years) to Columbia University.
He said he also wants to focus on several issues about which he feels strongly. One is differentiating between Israel advocacy and education, and another, which he calls “the challenge of our era,” is strengthening Jewish community in multiple ways.
He believes Jewish identity is what connects those who care about poor Jews in the former Soviet Union, a student on a Birthright trip to Israel and those who support social services for their own local communities.
“I believe ‘community’ is the foundation upon which identity is created,” said Ruskay, who traces his own deepening Jewish identity to his summers at Camp Ramah as a youngster.
“How to strengthen Jewish community and Jewish institutions is the challenge, and opportunity, of this moment,” he said, and he hopes to explore the creation of training programs and curriculum along these lines for informal and formal Jewish education.
One frustration for Ruskay is the bureaucratic image of UJA-Federation that persists. “Federation makes extraordinary things happen, but it’s seen as some government-like agency focused on fundraising,” he said. “It tends not to garner heart-share,” as in making people realize it is responsible for helping people here and around the world. He likens it to the U.S. Interior Department not getting much credit for the beauty of national parks like Yosemite, though it sustains them.
While some say Jewish federations are on the decline, Ruskay maintains they will “remain a potent force in Jewish life far longer than many believe” because they help Jews come together and create a big impact, still have “prodigious financial strength” and provide support for innovation. But he worries “whether we can seize the opportunity and aggregate the resources to maximize a strong Jewish future.”
On a personal note, I have known and admired Ruskay since we met at the 1977 GA (General Assembly of the federation system) in Dallas, when he was working with Rabbi Yitz Greenberg at CLAL and I was editing the Baltimore Jewish Times. Over the years we saw each other at various Jewish events, but it has been since 1993, when he began working at UJA-Federation and I became editor of The Jewish Week, that we have dealt with each other professionally.
At times there has been real tension, the natural result of a community newspaper reporting on a federation’s challenges and opportunities — each believing it is serving the community’s highest goals. There have been numerous times when he and I benefited from the mutual trust we shared, helping us to avoid lasting institutional rifts. Always he has been both a consummate professional and caring colleague, qualities which not only made a lasting impression on me but on so many of the thousands of people whose lives he touches, even if they don’t know it.
(Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, can be reached at Gary@jewishweek.org. This column previously appeared in the Week.)