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Jack Goldberg

Lineage is important in Zen. It’s one of the things that makes Zen Zen: Direct transmission of authority to teach and transmit the Dharma, face-to-face, from one generation to the next. I can trace my lineage back through Bernie (and Jishu) through Maezumi and Dogen and Bodhidharma to our original teacher, Shakyamuni Buddha.

Lineage charts, made meticulously by hand, are an important part of many of our Zen ceremonies. Over the years, I have made three lineages charts — first for Jukai, the ceremony of taking Refuge; for Denkai, the culminating ceremony on the priest path; and for Denbo, the Dharma transmission ceremony. 

The first two charts were exercises in copying, but for the third Bernie invited creativity. We were free to find a way to recognize other important teachers in our lives beyond those on the blood line which stretches from Shakyamuni to me and then returns to him. The Denbo chart looked like a flower to me, each petal representing a successor in the line. I was free to add leaves. I added three, one for each of the Zen teachers other than Bernie — he’s on the direct line, so he’s on the penultimate pedal; I’m on the last — who were most important to me on my Zen practice path: Kyudo Nakagawa, Jishu Holmes, Bob Kennedy. I was grateful to add their names.

It never occurred to me to add any of the important teachers in my life who were not official Zen people. If I were doing my Denbo documents now, I would add a leaf for Jack Goldberg.

Did we ask once what the “R” stood for in “Jack R. Goldberg” or did he volunteer the story? “Nothing, it stands for nothing. I have no middle name, but in high school, DeWitt Clinton, there were so many Jack Goldbergs that I invented the ‘R’.”

I was introduced to Jack in the Social Work Recruitment Seminar, my first summer at Wel-Met, the summer after my freshman year. I had no interest in social work as a career and had never met a social worker, but I had been a happy camper during summers growing up, so when it came to looking for a summer job, I applied to sleep-away camps. Wel-Met had a big ad in The Times. They were paying me all of $200 for a 10-week season as a waterfront counselor, and they had stamped my contract, an additional $25 for participation in the recruitment seminar. 

“It was a mistake,” they told me when I arrived at camp. “You have to have completed two years of college to be eligible.”

I wanted $25. “It’s on my contract.”

They knew they were stuck. “If you’re not really interested in social work, you’re going to hate it. It’s a lot of work.”

“I’m interested in social work,” I lied. I wanted the $25.

Jack Goldberg taught the seminar. He was the Executive Director of the Wel-Met Camps, and I had never met anyone like him. He told stories about social work practice, and he punctuated his stories with curse words. I had never heard an adult talk that way. My parents never cursed. None of my teachers ever cursed. That was the way we kids talked. It wasn’t just the swear words either. Jack was a tough guy. I could feel it. He smoked unfiltered cigarettes, Camels. I had only started smoking freshman year. Viceroys were my starter cigarettes. I switched to Camels.

I remember strange tidbits from his stories. Jack was a poker player. He told us about his weekly game in Westchester where he lived. I got the impression they were all social work executives in the game. Mitch Ginsburg, who was then the Associate Dean at the Columbia School of Social Work, was in the game.

Jack drove around camp and between Wel-Met’s three campuses in a big station wagon. He always had a carton of Camels on his dashboard.

I felt a bond. I don’t know how or why. It gave me courage that was unfamiliar. I ran out of cigarettes, and there was Jack standing by his car in front of the Administration Building.

“Can I bum a cigarette?”

Jack reached through the window, grabbed a fresh pack, and tossed it to me.

I found an excuse occasionally to go in and meet with him in his office. I don’t think many other counselors did that.

I worked at Wel-Met every summer during college. There must have been one year Jack was away. He had taken a leave of absence to head up an anti-delinquency pilot program in DC. He reported directly to Bobby Kennedy. He didn’t show up at camp that year until the last weekend of the season.

Jack told a story about a meeting with Bobby. There was some new initiative that he wanted to pursue and was looking for a green-light. Bobby listened and then picked up the red phone on his desk, repeating the gist of what Jack was asking, then listened. He hung. “Go ahead.” Jack said that was as close as he got to the White House.

His wife, he said, was a much bigger social hit. She was part of a regular golf foursome with Ethel, Bobby’s wife, his sister Eunice Shriver, and Bob McNamara’s wife. McNamara was Secretary of Defense.

Jack did meet Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg at a fancy Washington party. Jack was impressed that the Justice actually came over and introduced himself. “But once he determined that we weren’t related, he walked away.”


At the end of the summer after my junior year, I went in to see Jack. I was trying to figure out what to do with my life. “Do you think I should go to social work school?” I would be applying to graduate schools that Fall. I was hoping he would say “yes,” afraid he would say “no.”

“Do you know that you asked me the exact same question at this point in the summer last year?”

That was all he said. How’s that for a Zen master’s response? He might as well have given me 40 whacks with his staff.

I did apply to social work school. And I ended up at Columbia. Jack was an adjunct professor, teaching the course in social work administration. I took the course in the first semester of my second year. It was strange seeing Jack out of the camp setting. It was anyway a strange semester for me. I was getting married that winter, and my mother wanted me to look my best for the wedding. She thought I should lose weight and took me to a Great Neck diet doctor who put me on speed.

I did get one gem from Jack that semester which I have cherished ever since. Sometime, probably mid-semester, he told the class, “There is nothing so important that it can’t wait until tomorrow.” For a kid who had grown up on, “Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today,” this was a revelation. It has served me well ever since, saved me so many times from the impulsive, usually angry, email or phone call. “There is nothing so important that it can’t wait until tomorrow.”

But the speed got me into trouble, loosened my tongue too much, angered one professor so much that I didn’t get to graduate with my classmates, had to spend an extra summer repeating a semester of field work. I always figured that Columbia would have thrown me out completely if it weren’t for Jack. Jack, I imagined, talked to his poker buddy, Mitch, who was by then the Dean. I swallowed my embarrassment and got my degree. It was so embarrassing and was such a nothing. My resume still says 1966. No one knows that my degree was awarded in September rather than June. No one has ever asked.

Sometime after I graduated, Mitch Ginsburg left Columbia to become Mayor John Lindsey’s Commissioner of Welfare. When Lindsey created the Human Service Administration, a superagency which included Welfare, Ginsburg moved up to become the first Administrator. Jack succeeded him as Welfare Commissioner.

By that time, I was doing community organizing work at the Brookdale Community Mental Health Center. I was working with the Welfare Rights Movement. This was cutting edge Civil Rights stuff. Twenty-one social workers were arrested blocking the entryway to the Welfare Department headquarters. I was one of them. Lou Levitt, who had been my first camp director at Wel-Met, was working then as Jack’s chief assistant. It was Lou who came down to the front door to direct the police arrests. He never let on that he knew me.

Jack went from Welfare to NYU to become Dean of the School of Social Work. I don’t remember how it came about that I got to meet with him there in his office. I was still abeginning social worker. I was just amazed that I knew a dean and could go visit him. His office was outrageous, in one of those small, pre-revolutionary brick buildings that NYU owns along Washington Square North. It was gorgeous.

It must have been a few years before I saw Jack again. I had left Brookdale to take my first teaching position at Finch College. For the first time since finishing social work school, I had a summer off. So, what did I do? I went back to Wel-Met as a Unit Director and had my own trailer to live in. It was like coming back as an adult to a place that I had been as a kid and being one of the adults now. And who should show up at camp for the final weekend? Jack, of course. There was an end-of-the-season poker game, a tradition that began during Jack’s days as Exec, to which only a few special people were invited. Don Main who was in charge of facilities was one who had always talked about that game. And would you believe it, I was invited to play?

I am not a poker player. I hate the anxiety. But what a rite of passage this was. I had to play. I was at the table with Jack, and unbelievably I was ahead. What an Oedipal scene. The anxiety took over. I lost back my winnings, but I had been in the game. It was an experience I would never forget.

Late the next day we heard that driving back from Wel-Met to Westchester, Jack had suffered a massive heart attack and had died. Still, today, I can only shake my head.

What makes someone an important teacher in my life is not the things they taught me about, although these may be memorable. The important teachers embodied something which I needed to see, maybe made it visible to me for the first time in my life, showed me something that I could aspire to, and somehow by their example gave me the courage to go for it. Jack Goldberg was such a person in my life.

Thank you, Jack.

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