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Just before he received an honorary doctorate from one of the nation’s most distinguished institutions, John S. Ruskay reviewed the personal and professional road he has travelled, from his time at a Jewish summer camp, to his first visit to the streets of Jerusalem, to standing before the ashes of Dachau.

John Ruskay speaking at Hebrew Union College
John S. Ruskay delivering the 2013 Dr. Fritz Bamberger Memorial Lecture at Hebrew Union College. Photo: Richard Lobell / HUC-JIR

Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of UJA-Federation of New York, shared part of his journey at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), on December 5th, presenting the 2013 Dr. Fritz Bamberger Memorial Lecture titled, “What Will Be Required.” In it he spoke of not only his own path, but of the modern history of Jews in North America, and ways to “forge a Jewish future of meaning and purpose that will strengthen our people long into the future.” The audience included top lay leaders and professionals from around the Jewish world, along with friends and family of Ruskay.

Ruskay was introduced by his friend and colleague, Rabbi David Ellenson, HUC-JIR’s president. “It is wonderful to have a friendship that has persisted for over four decades… and my admiration for all that John has accomplished over the years is immense,” said Ellenson, who first met Ruskay at Columbia University. Ruskay has announced that he is stepping down in June after 15 years as UJA-Federation’s chief executive, and Ellenson said, “I thought this would be an ideal time for John to offer his own views on the nature of Jewish life: where we stand today and where it is that we’re likely to go in years to come.”

Ruskay approached the question of what the future holds for the Jewish people through the lens of personal experiences that brought him closer to Judaism. Growing up in a family he described as “highly assimilated,” he said many rituals had a perfunctory feel, but at his bar mitzvah, a man at his synagogue suggested he go to Camp Ramah in Nyack, where for the first time, Ruskay “experienced being part of a wonderful, joyful, Jewish community.”

The Exhilaration of Jewish Life

David Ellenson and John Ruskay at Hebrew Union College
David Ellenson about to present an honorary doctorate to Ruskay. Photo: Richard Lobell / HUC-JIR

From those first transformative summers, Ruskay took away the potential of gateway institutions−─synagogues, camps, Hillels, JCCs and Ys−─to “sear the soul” and he has spent much of his career striving to make them “inspired settings for Jewish learning and living. So when people cross their thresholds, they are more likely to experience the exhilaration of Jewish life and are then motivated to become involved and learn.”

Again and again, Ruskay returned to the critical role of personal experiences in his understanding of and involvement in Jewish life. He spoke of feeling betrayed when he got to college and discovered the oversimplified version of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict he’d been given by the Jewish institutions he’d attended. This spurred his conviction that Israel advocacy should not be conflated with Israel education. His visits with seniors in Minsk being supported by Jews in America gave him a deeper grasp of collective Jewish responsibility. Each anecdote painted a picture of how his microcosm of experience informed his views on where the wider Jewish community is and should be headed.

While he talked of the many challenges of living Jewishly in an open society, including the sobering findings in the recent Pew Center study of Jewish Americans, Ruskay said that he still sees much room for optimism in the opportunities to encourage future generations of Jews to self-identify more fully. Making Jewish institutions accessible to more people will be one key way to do that, he said. “This work will not be accomplished in a month, or a year, or a decade. This is the agenda for the next era of Jewish history.”

And as Rabbi Ellenson, who himself is retiring in several weeks, presented Ruskay with the honorary doctorate and both men’s faces were full of emotion, he thanked Ruskay for the extraordinary role he played in that history.

“Some individuals, and especially you, John, have been so significant in helping to forge a positive direction of Jewish life in our day,” Ellenson said.