Former Jewish Federation CEO Dies at 79

Harold Bonavita-Goldman (Courtesy of John Bonavita-Goldman)

Harold Bonavita-Goldman, the former president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, died from COVID complications on Feb. 5. He was 79.

He moved to Philadelphia in the early 1980s and led two prominent Jewish organizations in the region, according to a synopsis of his life provided by his family. From 1983 to 1999, he served as CEO of Jewish Family and Children’s Service. From 2000 to 2006, he guided Jewish Federation.

“He was the first out gay leader in both organizations,” the synopsis read.

After stepping down from Jewish Federation, he moved to New York City with his husband John Bonavita-Goldman, but he didn’t leave Jewish organizational life. He stepped up to serve as executive director of his synagogue, B’nai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side and remained in the position for five years.

Harold Bonavita-Goldman is survived by John, his husband of 11 years and partner of 39 years, as well as his sister Marilyn Weinman, her husband Bernie and their four children.

“He really liked helping people,” John Bonavita-Goldman said.

Harold Bonavita-Goldman was born in 1942 in Memphis, Tennessee. After earning his juris doctor degree from the University of Memphis, he provided legal services to the poor in Tennessee and Illinois.

During that period, he grew apart from his Orthodox upbringing. As a kid, he got beaten up on the playground for having payos and wearing a kippah, according to his husband.

“He stopped doing that,” John Bonavita-Goldman said. “He tried to fit in.”

But in the early 1980s, Harold Bonavita-Goldman’s father died, and he felt a sudden desire to reconnect. While he didn’t go back to being Orthodox, he did rediscover Jewish life.

“That was really a turning point for him,” John Bonavita-Goldman said.

And Harold Bonavita-Goldman turned toward Philadelphia, moving here for the job as CEO of JFCS.

At JFCS, he fulfilled the organizational mission of helping the poor, said Ande Adelman, a volunteer at the time. The CEO was a great listener who excelled at fundraising and securing government contracts, which gave JFCS the money it needed to operate smoothly.

But Harold Bonavita-Goldman didn’t just fulfill the mission; he added to it.

According to Paula Goldstein, who has been with JFCS since 1984 and now serves as president, Harold Bonavita-Goldman started a program for people struggling with HIV and AIDS. He also created a management counsel to bring together leaders of programs and the leaders of the organization.

“You felt when you were a program director you had access to him and you started to understand how decisions were made,” Goldstein said.

On the personal side, Harold Bonavita-Goldman was also building. He met and fell in love with his future husband, a radiologist, shortly after moving to Philadelphia. During the AIDS epidemic, like many gay couples, the men rejected the sexually open gay culture of the 1970s in favor of a relationship.

From left: Harold Bonavita-Goldman with Betsy and Richard Sheer at a Jewish Federation event. (Courtesy of John Bonavita-Goldman)

John Bonavita-Goldman was with Harold Bonavita-Goldman through his JFCS years and his time at Jewish Federation. During Harold Bonavita-Goldman’s presidency with the latter, John Bonavita-Goldman got to accompany his husband to almost nightly fundraising dinners during the week.

“He would really ask people what they were interested in and try to tailor stuff to people’s interests,” he said.

While leading Jewish Federation, Harold Bonavita-Goldman updated its strategic plan to allow donors to designate their dollars to programs; he established an open culture that made area synagogue leaders comfortable about coming to him; he also ran two Israel campaigns and established Netivot as Philadelphia’s sister city in the Holy Land.

“He was a very special person. Brilliant. Terrific problem solver,” Adelman said. “But his best part of him was his relationship skills.”

After Harold Bonavita-Goldman’s tenure with Jewish Federation, he moved to his husband’s native home, New York City, so the latter could take a job with New York University’s Department of Radiology.

Harold Bonavita-Goldman initially called himself retired. But he quickly came out of retirement to lead B’nai Jeshurun. It turned out the synagogue needed him; he helped it survive by raising $25 million to buy back an old building.

And at long last, this mainstream organizational leader was able to enter the mainstream on a personal level, too. In 2011, New York passed the Marriage Equality Act, joining the rising tide of states opening up to same-sex marriage.

The week the law went into effect that summer, Harold Bonavita-Goldman and John Bonavita-Goldman got married on a Friday morning at City Hall. A CBS News cameraman captured the moment. On the subway back home, “everyone was congratulating us,” John Bonavita-Goldman said.

The couple enjoyed collecting art and compiled more than 100 pieces to hang in their home. Sometimes, they would hit as many as 40 galleries in a weekend.

“He was fun and really solid to be with,” he said.

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