Lawrence Goldberg, tireless booster of many causes, dies at 80

Lawrence Goldberg fought hard for the politics and principles he believed in. One of those principles was civility, which explains why he had friends of all persuasions. An attorney, political operative and tireless Jewish community activist, Goldberg died of cancer on Jan. 29 in his Tiburon home. He was 80.

“Larry lived an extraordinary life,” Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council said in a eulogy at Goldberg’s Jan. 31 memorial service at Congregation Emanu-El. “[He was] blessed with an exceptional mind, a loving family and passionate commitment informed by a deep love of our country, the Jewish people, the Jewish State, Jewish values and Jewish activism.”

Born and raised in Providence, R.I., Goldberg grew up in a secular Jewish home heavily influenced by the socialist politics of his immigrant grandparents. There was plenty of Yiddishkeit and Jewish culture, however, and in the aftermath of the Holocaust, the teenage Goldberg felt instant affinity with the state of Israel after its creation in 1948.

Lawrence Goldberg

“That for him was one of the greatest moments,” said his wife, Nancy Goldberg. “His passion was believing in Jewish continuity and peoplehood, and he worked tirelessly in his support for Israel.”

A graduate of Brown University and then Harvard Law School, Goldberg worked as a tax lawyer and later for his father’s toy business. But he also found time to indulge a growing love of politics. He ultimately had a very different take from his socialist grandparents, taking a turn to the right.

Invited to work for a Rhode Island Republican candidate for governor, Goldberg found he had an instinct for rough-and-tumble politics. While serving on United Jewish Appeal’s Young Leadership Cabinet, he befriended Max Fisher, a high-level Republican Party operative, who conscripted Goldberg in 1972 to serve as Richard Nixon’s liaison to the Jewish community.

He went on to work on more than 50 political campaigns at the federal and state level, almost all of them for Republicans.

His Washington connections led to posts as assistant director of the Federal Preparedness Agency (a predecessor of FEMA), assistant director of the Community Services Administration and membership in the U.S. Commission on International Education and Cultural Affairs at the State Department.

Goldberg devoted as much time to the Jewish community as he did to politics. He co-founded the Rhode Island Jewish Community Relations Council, served as vice president of the Jewish Federation of Rhode Island, and held national leadership positions with the American Jewish Committee, AIPAC, CAMERA, the Anti-Defamation League, UJA, HIAS and other organizations.

Goldberg married and had two children, but later divorced. In 1979, he attended the United Jewish Communities’ General Assembly in Montreal. There he met Nancy, the Northern California liberal spitfire who stole his heart.

“We met on a Thursday,” Goldberg recalled in an interview with j. last year. “We talked about getting married on Sunday, got engaged, and took six months to work out the details.”

The couple settled first in Rhode Island and then Washington, D.C., where Goldberg worked for the Reagan campaign and his wife worked for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council.

They later relocated to Marin County, where they worked separately in partisan political campaigns, but together for Jewish organizations such as Jewish Family and Children’s Services and JCRC, for which he served as a board member, committee chair and Israel mission frequent flyer.

“JCRC indeed brought together his true passions,” Kahn said. “The imperative of activism, civil debate and an abiding commitment to Israel and American democracy. It also focuses on building consensus — something Larry truly believed in — even when his arguments did not carry the day, though they often did, because he saw in that consensus a united and therefore powerful community.”

Added Anita Friedman, executive director of Jewish Family and Children’s Services: “Larry was a clear thinker and always put his principles first. He was able to combine his love of the Constitution with love of the Torah in a labor of love on behalf of this community.”

Being married to someone from the opposite end of the political spectrum might have frayed other marriages, but not the Goldbergs.

“He was never so staunch that he didn’t listen to other points of view,” Nancy said. “He was pro-choice, pro-gay marriage. The social things I cared about, he cared about and worked for them.”

He even served as national co-chair of Republicans for Clinton-Gore in 1992 because of his dissatisfaction with the policy toward Israel of the George H. W. Bush administration.

“We are a team,” Lawrence Goldberg said in an interview when he and his wife were honored at the JCRC’s 2011 gala. “We have some differences of opinion on issues, and many things we agree on. We’ve been supportive of each other from the beginning, and we never let politics get in the way of the relationship.”

Goldberg called many Democrats friends, Richard Rubin among them. A liberal who writes a column every two weeks for the Marin Independent Journal, Rubin would often hear from Goldberg in response to his columns.

The two struck up a friendship, and though they frequently debated politics, they always kept things civil.

They co-taught a course on elections at the University of San Francisco’s Fromm Institute for Lifelong Learning, starting in 2004.

“I’m not sure we ever changed each other’s minds about things,” Rubin added, “but he enabled me to think about ways to answer questions differently. He was a tutor, not just a good friend. He had a very kind and gentle way of expressing himself, even though he was highly dogmatic. He was the last of the moderate New England Republicans.”

Away from politics and activism, Goldberg loved to play tennis and spend time with family.

“We had tons of friends,” Nancy Goldberg said. “Entertaining, being with people we loved, going to movies, plays — we had a depth and breadth of friendships together.”

She said her husband handled his final illness “the way he handled everything else: He became an advocate.”

In the last few months, Goldberg appeared in three documentary films about palliative care, created by JFCS. Topics included hospice care and why it’s important to get personal information up to date. Said Nancy Goldberg, “He was a teacher to the very end.”

She added of her husband: “He was a very fair person. He appreciated civility and talking things out. Larry once said to me, ‘I just don’t know what I can do to show you how much I love you.’ I said, ‘You could become a Democrat.’ He said no.”

Lawrence Goldberg is survived by his wife, Nancy Goldberg of Tiburon: two children, David Goldberg of Riverdale, N.Y., and Melissa Bailey of Ronkonkoma, N.Y.; two step-children Jonathan Barker of Fairfax, and Lori Barker of Los Angeles; and four grandchildren. Contributions may be made to the S.F.-based JCRC or to the JFCS Palliative and End of Life Care program.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.