December 8, 2019

Beth Hersh Goldsmith, human rights advocate, community activist, 58

Beth Goldsmith never tired of telling the story.

As a young Jewish-community professional, she led a 1984 mission of California state legislators visiting refuseniks in Moscow and Leningrad. It was bitter cold, the food was awful and her going-away present was a 45-minute interrogation by KGB agents.

That’s not to say her work running the Jewish Community Relations Council’s Commission on Soviet Jewry lacked a glamorous side. In her late 20s, Goldsmith traveled to Israel to talk strategy with Prime Minister Shimon Peres, among others, and met with U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz to push for human rights.

After the Soviets in 1986 released Natan Sharansky, the most prominent refusenik, Goldsmith organized a rally that drew thousands to Wilshire Boulevard.

These early dramas typified a three-decade career as a passionate advocate for causes ranging from exposing dangerous cults to supporting spinal cord research. Goldsmith died Nov. 29 at age 58 after a battle with appendiceal cancer.

Beth Hersh Goldsmith was born in Charlotte, N.C., and raised in the Chicago suburb of Lincolnwood, Ill., before her family relocated to San Diego and then to Beverly Hills. She graduated from Beverly Hills High School and went on to UC Berkeley, spending her junior year at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

After a stint as legislative aide to U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), she worked as personal assistant to Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the movement’s lobbying arm. With a small team of other 20-somethings, she battled the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority in support of reproductive choice and against prayer in schools.

She took over the Soviet Jewry Commission in 1983, bringing heightened attention to the plight of refuseniks during the 1984 Summer Olympics, and was instrumental in lobbying the Reagan administration to pressure the Soviets for human rights for their Jewish citizens.

She later advocated for health care issues, serving as founding executive director of the Arthritis Foundation’s San Fernando Valley office, then as executive director of Concern Foundation, a Beverly Hills-based charity that funds cancer research. In 2003, she became founding executive director of the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation, the largest private foundation aimed at helping those with spinal cord injuries.

She leaves behind her husband of 30 years, Gordy Goldsmith, son Noah, 27, and daughter Aliza, 25. She also leaves a brother, Andrew Hersh. 

Because all of her grandparents had died before she was born, Goldsmith had long felt deprived of stories from earlier generations. Determined to give her children and future generations what she had lacked, she devoted much of the last year of her life to writing her memoir, “One Degree of Separation: A Fully Connected Life.” It’s a fitting title for a woman who forged friendships with nearly everyone whose life she touched.

Goldsmith was also an enthusiastic giver of tzedakah, and the family suggests donations in her memory be made to the Concern Foundation, City of Hope, KPCC or the cause of your choice.