Harold Bonavita-Goldman, 79, formerly of Philadelphia, the one-time president and chief executive officer of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, and before that the president and CEO of Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Philadelphia, died Saturday, Feb. 5, of cancer and COVID-19 at Northern Dutchess Hospital in Rhinebeck, NY
A prolific fund-raiser, inspirational mentor, and entertaining dinner party raconteur, Dr. Bonavita-Goldman was able to simultaneously bring people together and get important things done. Formal but friendly, he saw the big picture, understood how others worked together best, and created programs that addressed the smaller issues that comprised the larger concern.
As president of the Jewish Federation from 2000 to 2006, he oversaw a controversial restructuring of the organization’s goals and operations that focused on both its service objectives and budgetary targets.
“Finances are not driving our agenda,” he told The Inquirer in 2003. “What’s driving us is the need to be able to communicate to our community, our stakeholders, what we stand for.”
Eventually, the federation adjusted its financial commitment to all 26 constituent agencies and named three funding priorities: synagogues and other “gateway institutions,” Jewish education, and programs to help the poor and elderly. “The goal is to have maximum impact on the big issues,” Dr. Bonavita-Goldman told The Inquirer.
The first openly gay leader of the federation, Dr. Bonovita-Goldman told the Forward publication in 2006 that he did not “make my personal agenda my work agenda.” However, he said that some parents were grateful for his personal honesty.
“They would come up to me and say they were pleased that I was so public about who I was because they felt it provided a good role model,” he said.
As a leader at Jewish Family and Children’s Service from 1984 to 1999, Dr. Bonavita-Goldman helped rejuvenate the organization and oversaw new initiatives devoted to, among other issues, the prevention of domestic violence and increased services for the poor, elderly, and those with special needs.
“We, as Jews, have a special mission in this world,” he told writer Ami Eden in 1999. “We came out of slavery. We need to be conscious of others because we are ‘other.’ ”
In a tribute, officials at Jewish Family and Children’s Service said: “His compassionate leadership continues to have a lasting impact on the legacy and mission of our work.”
He also served as chairman of the steering committee for the Pennsylvania Council of Children, Youth & Family and on the board of overseers at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy & Practice. Later, he was executive director of B’nai Jeshurun in New York for five years.
Born Oct. 14, 1942 in Memphis, Tenn., Dr. Bonavita-Goldman grew up in an Orthodox family. He earned bachelor’s and law degrees at the University of Memphis, and a master’s degree in social work at the University of Illinois.
At first, he provided legal aid to the needy in Tennessee and Illinois, and later became a political aid and chief legal counsel to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. His father’s death in the 1980s rekindled his interest in Jewish culture, and a bout with cancer spurred him to earn a doctorate in social policy at the University of Chicago.
He met John Bonavita, a medical executive and radiologist, in 1982 at a dinner party in Philadelphia. Sharing a love of art, travel, and other things, they were partners for 39 years and lived in Philadelphia, New York, and elsewhere. They married in 2011.
“We influenced each other in certain ways,” Bonavita said. “He didn’t let people get close, but he allowed me to see him. And he softened my edges.”
Dr. Bonavita-Goldman was close to his sister, Marilyn Weinman, and niece Sharon Weinman. He and his husband visited art galleries and museums on weekends, renovated several homes, and traveled often to Israel.
He liked to read mysteries, watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer on TV, and sit with his goldendoodle Charlie. “He could charm anybody,” his husband said.
In addition to his husband, sister, and niece, Dr. Bonavita-Goldman is survived by other relatives.
Services were Feb. 8.
Donations in his name may be made to the president’s challenge scholarship fund at the State University of New York-Ulster, 491 Cottekill Rd., Stone Ridge, NY 12484, and America Votes, 1155 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 600, Washington, DC 20036.