A Humble Hero: Zev Wolfson’s Powerful Lessons in Jewish Leadership August 23, 2012 4:18 am
By Mordechai Tokarsky
Do you believe in the Kabalistic Jewish tradition of the 36 hidden Tzadikim – saintly Jews who sustain the Jewish people with their good deeds? Do you wonder if they could really exist in our time? In the age of Google searches, social networks and the prying eyes of mass media, would it really be possible for one person to impact the entire Jewish people and yet still remain hidden? Hard to imagine? Then try Googling the name of Zev Wolfson of Lawrence, NY, an unassuming retired businessman, who recently passed away at the age of 84. Would you ever have known that the generosity, vision and dedication of this man has impacted millions of Jews throughout the world? Even the Jewish professionals and lay leaders among us, who were fortunate enough to be involved in one of the countless Wolfson projects, know little beyond their own experience. How could they? No interviews were given to newspapers; nor were there any telltale signs of philanthropy: no names on buildings, no awards, no dedication ceremonies. Just tens or maybe hundreds of thousands of children receiving a Jewish education; hundreds of community Rabbis and educators leading vibrant communities in places where Jewish life seemed hopeless just a short time ago. Tens of thousands of Jewish university students connected with their heritage through Israel trips and campus programs. Countless poor Jews in Israel given vocational training and empowered to support their families with dignity and strengthen the Israeli economy.
Then there is the part of the story which seems most improbable of all; how Zev Wolfson became the ‘go-to person’ for Israeli prime ministers in lobbying Washington. In fact, his influence in Washington played such a powerful role that Shimon Peres was recently quoted saying that ‘Zev Wolfson rendered more assistance to the State of Israel then Ben-Gurion himself’ and Yitzhak Rabin said of him ‘he didn’t know one other Jew in the world, who as an individual, had done more for the State of Israel’.
To truly appreciate the audacity of this role, it’s important to remember that Zev Wolfson was then a relatively recent immigrant to the US. He was born and raised in Vilna, Lithuania. He survived the war because his family was deported by the Soviets to Siberia, and then made his way to the U.S. He went into business selling television vacuum tubes and then got into real estate. It was sometime in the 1950’s, when an Israeli delegation was visiting New York, he saw an Israeli flag in front of the hotel where they were staying and asked himself ‘what am I doing to help Israel?’. Most of us would have dropped a nice donation to alleviate our guilt and moved on with our lives. Zev began spending time in Washington, passing the halls of the Congress and Senate. He would attempt to make friends, to help out campaigns, to do whatever he could do. He was not a major business man then, he was just a somewhat successful, recent immigrant from Eastern Europe. I wonder what the politicians made of this young man; with what must have been a somewhat heavy accent and imperfect English.
Then came 1967, after the six day war, when France abandoned her strong alliance with Israel and instead, began arming neighboring Arab states. France, not the US, was then the major supplier of arms to Israel and France had just abruptly canceled all military contracts. Israel was in trouble. Shimon Peres called everyone he could including Zev Wolfson to see what they could do in helping to lobby for an alliance with Washington. This was the age before AIPAC, before the US considered Israel it’s closest ally in the middle-east, before bi-partisan support of Israel in both House and Senate was a given of US politics. The extent of what Zev Wolfson accomplished may never be known. We only know that for a time, he was a one man Israel lobby in Washington – the ‘go-to person’ for Israeli prime ministers – helping to secure an eleventh hour arms shipment as Israel was running out of ammunition in the Yom Kippur war – working to lower the interest rate Israel paid on its US loans when the Israeli economy was on the rocks.
He was always ‘thinking out of the box’, before ‘thinking out of the box’ was in vogue. This trait permeated everything he did; from his classic style of leveraging every connection against every other connection in a never ever ending quest to strengthen not just Israel, but the entire Jewish people. Business connections were leveraged to help politicians, who were in turn leveraged to gain aid for Israel; funds coming in to help Israel were leveraged to support Jewish education in the Diaspora. He was audacious; like the time he drove the length of Fifth Avenue in the opposite direction. He was driving a U.S. Senator to march in the Israeli day parade. The Senator was supposed to march in front of the Parade, but when they arrived, the streets were already closed off and they were at the very beginning of Fifth avenue. Zev drove his Cadillac right on to the then empty Fifth Avenue, driving against the normal flow of traffic. The startled Senator asked; ‘what are you doing? We will be arrested!’, Zev calmly replied that any police officer seeing a car going in the opposite direction on Fifth Avenue, would most likely assume that it must have some kind of official permission (they were never stopped, but as they say; don’t try this at home).
What made Zev Wolfson different? Certainly there are many Jewish billionaires, plenty of the them became successful by thinking ‘out of the box’. There are countless kind-hearted and dedicated Jewish philanthropists, lay leaders and professionals. What makes someone into a true leader, a hidden pillar of the Jewish people? I don’t have a full answer, but certainly a part of it has to do with a simple idea; a feeling responsibility for the problems faced by the Jewish people. Not the ‘let’s do something about a problem’ type of responsibility common in philanthropy, but rather the type of responsibility most of us reserve only for our personal lives, our children and the success of our careers and businesses. A type of responsibility that doesn’t allow for failure or settling for the ‘it was the best I could do.’ A responsibility which brings out one’s personal best. A responsibility that translates into strategic thinking, leveraging partnerships, making every dollar count, and always innovating.
I was privileged to witness a small portion of Zev Wolfson’s philanthropic vision as it evolved. In 1999, when I received my rabbinic ordination, Zev challenged me, along with a small group of peers, to found Shaarei, a center for Jewish life, catering to the needs of young Russian-speaking Jews like us, who felt disconnected from the wider Jewish community. It was a tempting offer, a $20,000 grant, leveraged with a matching grant from RSA, my rabbinical school, and it gave us a challenge to raise the rest of the budget and to become self-sufficient within 3 years. Everything about that grant was fine-tuned for maximum impact; the funding was just enough to give us a fighting chance and make us believe that if we worked hard, we could succeed. Countless similar community development projects were founded throughout the world.
As our organization grew, I remember the various phases of Zev Wolfson’s philanthropy, always focusing on reaching more and more Jews. At one point, the idea of making large hotel-based educational seminars became popular. One day, I walked into Zev Wolfson’s office to ask for funding to make one such seminar for our community. He asked ‘How much per student?’ I replied ‘$200′. ‘How many students?’ We wanted to make one seminar for 400. Then came the shocker: ‘I will only fund it if you can do 10 seminars.’ To Zev Wolfson, it wasn’t just about the 400 Jews reached through a weekend at a hotel, inspired to strengthen their Jewish identity, rather, it was about being responsible to reach every single Jew. If running seminars for young Russian American Jews was a new approach, his mind raced to scale the idea, to immediately ask what it would take to reach everyone.
How do we strengthen the Jewish people? How do we make sure that the next generation of young Jews establishes Jewish families, supports Israel and makes a commitment to a Jewish way of life?
I remember a visit to the Diaspora museum in Tel Aviv a few years ago, watching an old video about the Jewish community in Argentina. The community was comprised largely of Eastern European immigrants, some of whom arrived as early as the turn of the century, and some who were Holocaust survivors. Assimilation and intermarriage among their children was decimating the community. It did not seem to be a place where a generation later, you would expect to find the only kosher McDonald’s outside of Israel, along with dozens of other kosher restaurants. Clearly something was working right. Through a Zev Wolfson funded program in Buenos Aries, called Morasha, over 2000 college students each year were spending at least four and a half hours per week studying Judaism, attending Shabbatons and going on trips to Israel. Can such a program be adapted for Russian Jews in America? I thought. What would motivate them to join such a program? Would they commit four and half hours each week? That level of time commitment was vital, because it created a new social reality – very different from just attending a class or an event. This was the beginning of the RAJE Fellowship program, which in its sixth year, is now igniting Jewish life for the next generation of Russian American Jews in the New York area.
Did some higher authority appoint Zev Wolfson responsible? No, he appointed himself. A simple lesson we can learn from him is that the job of taking responsibly for the Jewish people is wide open to all of us. We can all open our eyes and choose to never look away, to take real responsibility. Not just ‘to do something about it’, but to follow Zev Wolfson’s lead in feeling truly responsible; making a plan, and seeing things through. For the philanthropists of means among us, the job of becoming one of the thirty six hidden Tzadikim, pillars of the Jewish people, is wide open as well. Seeing what one man can accomplish, we can only imagine the impact of having just a few more Jewish billionaires taking responsibility in this way. How much would the Jewish people be strengthened? How many of the chronic problems faced by our nation could be overcome?
Mordechai Tokarsky. Co-founder & Director of RAJE (Russian American Jewish Experience). More information on RAJE is available at www.rajeusa.com. Board members of RAJE include PR guru Ronn Torossian, leading NY Lawyer Edward Mermelstein, philanthropist Ron Hirsch and others.