Ruskay Looks To Future rss
As his first decade of leadership at UJA-Federation of New York was celebrated, Executive Vice President & CEO John S. Ruskay spelled out an ambitious agenda of future work for the organization in a major policy speech on December 8.
“Ten years after we presented hopes and plans, I stand before you, proud of our shared accomplishments and eager to deepen this work and take on new challenges,” Ruskay said. “I remain confident that we can seize this historic opportunity to continue to renew and revitalize Jewish life. . . . We are architects of the Jewish future.”
Ruskay spoke to an audience of more than 400 in a program held at Lighthouse International, including rabbis, agency executives, other Jewish leaders, and UJA-Federation lay organizers and professionals, as well as those watching on a webcast around the world.
Introducing Ruskay, a UJA-Federation past president, Larry Zicklin, lauded him for his passion. “John never cared about what we were doing well; he wanted to know what we could do better.”
In an address titled “Living Lives of Sacred Responsibility,” Ruskay echoed his words of a landmark speech made 10 years ago to the day stressing the need for “caring and inspiring communities” and added, “We have made substantial progress, to be sure, but much work remains.”
In detailing four top priorities, Ruskay pointed first to “the crisis in the affordability of Jewish life.” He said that people are being denied access to such key experiences as Jewish day school, Jewish summer camps, and Birthright because they lack adequate money. He said that in early 2010, a high-level, broad-based study, “Priorities and Philanthropy for the Jewish People in the 21st Century,” would be undertaken, and it would “research and propose needed changes in communal policies and priorities to increase affordability and access.”
Second, Ruskay called for a continued “reweaving of our community.” He said placing social workers in synagogues as part of Partners in Caring, and now the multiservice regional centers of UJA-Federation’s Connect to Care, represent more than programs, as they are efforts that weave together the community in new ways. “This paradigm needs to be extended and expanded – to Jewish day schools, to Hillels, and to additional Ys and JCCs.”
Third, Ruskay said that he, UJA-President John S. Shapiro, and Chair of the Board Jerry W. Levin will convene a task force of senior leadership to “review, reframe, and revision our future role.” Ruskay spoke about how Israel has matured economically and has different needs. He said UJA-Federation would continue to have a strong connection with Israel, and a “recontextualization” could involve developing new partnerships with Israeli philanthropists and the government of Israel.
On the fourth issue, Ruskay said, “Too few of our people-on and off college campuses-are able to effectively respond to Palestinian claims or to campaigns which seek to delegitimize the moral basis for Israel.” He said Israel education and advocacy needs to be decoupled and also strengthened, and an effort would be launched in cooperation with the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Makom Israel Engagement Network.
Campaign as “Inspired Cause”
Near the end of his speech, Ruskay offered a spirited case for the annual fundraising campaign, long a trademark of UJA-Federation. “I see it as inspired cause, an educational curriculum enabling each of us . . . to recognize that we remain among the most privileged human beings that have ever roamed this planet, and certainly the most privileged Jews.” Citing the strong performance of the campaign in recent years, he added, “I see our annual campaign as asking every Jew to accept responsibility for the entire Jewish people.”
Prior to Ruskay’s speech, there was a panel discussion. Moderator Alan Hoffmann, director general of the Education Department for the Jewish Agency for Israel, referred to his close personal and professional relationship with Ruskay as “peoplehood in action,” a reference to a cause championed by Ruskay. Jodi J. Schwartz, an attorney and chair of UJA-Federation’s Women’s Philanthropy, praised Ruskay for managing change that was sometimes “difficult and scary.”
Larry S. Moses, president of the Wexner Foundation, added that UJA-Federation, under Ruskay, had “demonstrated the strength to adapt to new realities.” The final panelist, Arnold M. Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, praised Ruskay for leading effectively with words and images “steeped in the language of Torah.”
As another part of the commemoration, UJA-Federation made public a special issue of the Journal of Jewish Communal Service, “Strengthening the Jewish Community: The Role of the Federation – A Case Study in New York (1999-2009).” The journal examines as a case study of the work of UJA-Federation and Ruskay in 50 articles from authors around the world.
At a reception at UJA-Federation headquarters across the street, a series of UJA-Federation lay and professional leaders, plus a number of other Jewish officials, offered toasts to Ruskay. One of the most poignant came from his wife, Robin Bernstein, who is president and CEO of The Educational Alliance. “He doesn’t just speak with fire in his belly, he lives with fire in his belly,” Bernstein said. “John is the quintessential teacher….We are better people for having known you.”