By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz
He was larger than life. He literally changed the world. His heart was larger than his personae. His name became intrinsically linked with his thematic mission in life.
His name was Zev Wolfson.
Mr. Wolfson was not a person who let opportunity pass him by. He was not one to watch history slowly fade in front of him. He seized opportunities. He created innovations. And he altered history with his vision, encouragement and support.
If there was a financial father and relentless initiator and advocate of the global teshuvah movement, it was Zev Wolfson.
He arrived in this country after the Holocaust as a poor orphan, but the blessings of Hashem reached the hand that would use those blessings properly. It was with great siyata diShmaya that the blessings of Hakadosh Boruch Hu translated soon into great financial success. He was not only blessed with the proper vision of whom to invest with financially. He had a vision of whom to invest with spiritually as well.
Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l was greatly mekarev him and it was Rav Aharon who helped Zev forge a global vision for Yidden the world over. Rav Aharon and Zev famously had an extremely close relationship.
His influence transcended the sphere of local institutions and his influence rose above the sphere of local politicians. He became known nationally as a supporter of those who would help ensure the safety, well-being and stability of Jewish communities around the world.
Besides befriending entrenched, strong, effective political leaders, Zev created relationships with young budding politicians, whom he supported as he watched them become rising stars. Remarkably, he was able to convince the nation’s leaders and these future leaders to allocate foreign aid to assist and abet institutions which would help needy Jewish youth across the world.
He knew that there was no better way to help those in need than by giving them a proper Torah education, whether it was through Chinuch Atzmai-Rav Aharon Kotler’s project to educate tens of thousands of Israeli children and rescue them from spiritual oblivion, or the thousands of boys and girls educated through the Otzar HaTorah school system in France.
The close relationships he cultivated with the most powerful people in the American government were never used for personal gain. He utilized those relationships strictly for the furtherance of Torah. Politicians, who exist in a world of each man for himself, were astounded at his selflessness and dedication to principle. That is why when Zev Wolfson asked them to use their political influence to spread Torah behind the Iron Curtain or for the establishment and maintenance of yeshivos in the United States, Canada, Israel, France and South America, they responded.
When it came to the security of the State of Israel and its inhabitants, he sought out and cultivated famous and unknown congressman and senators, whose names meant nothing to most of us, but whose votes could tip the crucial scales of justice and support in favor of our people. Whether it was a senator from Hawaii or a congressman from Kansas, Zev Wolfson knew how to reach them and enlist them in his mission.
He was a one-man lobby group and a very effective one at that.
He selflessly used his largesse to support mekomos haTorah in an unprecedented fashion. He cared about every Jew, no matter how far they had strayed from Yiddishkeit, and spent hundreds of millions of dollars supporting organizations and individuals who sought to return his fellow Jews to their heritage.
Mr. Wolfson did not want personal recognition. In fact, he refused it. He had a terrible distaste for recognition and honor. He seemed to have no ulterior motives.
He not only gave of his own, he motivated others as well. He involved people who would have otherwise never become involved. While doing so, he made sure that the people he was involving understood and appreciated the importance of the projects that they were supporting. He was creative in his prodding. He would ask others to match whatever an institution raised for a particular project, and he would then match with his own money what they had matched.
He was relentless in his mission and undying in his vision.
Because the vision of his rebbi, Rav Aharon, was with him.
And because he really cared.
He cared about golus haShechinah.
He cared about a kid in public school in Nassau County and in St. Louis and in Minneapolis.
Simply put, he cared.
He wanted the boy in St. Paul to say Shema Yisroel daily. He wanted the girl at Brandeis University to learn Chumash. He wanted the Ph.D. student to start appreciating Gemara. And he wanted the yungerman in Yerushalayim to have the knowledge and tools to impart Hashem’s Torah and love to anyone he met. He wanted the message of Torah to be shared with every Jew. And he put his money where his mind was.
No amount of embarrassment could deter him, because when it came to fulfilling his mission, he had no ego.
Mr. Wolfson was unbelievably low key. It is related that someone once spotted him sitting in the coach section of a plane on a flight to Eretz Yisroel. The fellow said, “Mr. Wolfson, what are you doing in coach?”
He responded, “What’s wrong? Is there a cheaper section further back?”
Although at one point in his life he had owned an airline, he was serious in his response.
He was never written up in any papers and his name didn’t appear on any lists. Very few even knew that he supported dozens of kollelim here and in Eretz Yisroel. He made sure of that. Despite his global generosity, his name appears on only one bais medrash, that of the Chevron Yeshiva in Givat Mordechai. If it is anywhere else, few know about it. That’s the way he wanted it.
He was one of the greatest supporters of Torah that history has known.
Although he encountered turbulence in his personal life, and although he was in constant need of medical attention, he was relentless. He lived with pain and did not care. He was afflicted with diabetes, but that did not stop him. He would check insulin levels during meetings with powerful senators and congressional leaders, and he was not embarrassed. He had more important matters to worry about. And he would not take no for an answer.
Through Torah Umesorah, he supported the establishment of kollelim across the country. He believed in training yungeleit and equipping them with the tools they would need to have the greatest impact in communities across the globe. He was the impetus behind the placing of bnei Torah in rabbinic positions all around the country, in cities and towns whose populations would have otherwise been lost to assimilation. And he bolstered those communities by funding day schools, kollelim, and more and more Torah programming.
It made no difference if it was a big city or a small town. Zev Wolfson stamped his imprint on the Torah of that community.
An example of the people he promoted to do more than they ever thought imaginable was his involvement with Rav Yitzchok Dovid Grossman of Migdal Emek. When Rav Grossman first approached Mr. Wolfson for support, Migdal Ohr was bursting at the seams with more than 300 children in the school. Rav Grossman needed a new building and came looking for help in purchasing a new structure to house his institution. Mr. Wolfson urged him to do more than just that. He helped him grow his mosad into the famed Migdal Ohr institutions, which serve thousands of students and have created a revolution of Torah in Northern Israel.
Mr. Wolfson was never intimidated. All he cared about was increasing Jewish education. He used the talents Hashem gave him to change the world. He paved the way. He clawed and fought. He never took no for an answer, though at times he backed down to save his fight for a different day. Failure was not in his lexicon, and it was not something he feared. Most of us don’t think enough of ourselves and our abilities. We don’t have the proper bitachon to put forth the maximum hishtadlus possible. Zev Wolfson proved that if you have enough faith, Hashem gives you the ability to do more.
He epitomized the directive of “Lo soguru mipnei ish – Do not fear anyone but Hashem.”
He did not fear the forces of dissuasion who laughed at a vision for thriving Torah communities in the remotest stretches of this land. He did not fear the forces of antagonism or anti-Semitism that threatened to put up barriers to block his work. He did not fear the naysayers who said that what he was trying to accomplish was impossible and could never happen. He dreamed on and lived to see many of his dreams realized.
He was very involved in educating Sephardic children and established and supported entire school systems for them. When Aryeh Deri was the all-powerful Minister of the Interior of the State of Israel, an American man he did not know, forced his way into his office. There was a tense discussion. When he left Deri asked around among the government’s leaders to find out who that man was. They told him, that the man was Mr. Zev Wolfson, who had singlehandedly done more for the State than any other private individual.
They went on to establish a very close friendship, with Wolfson becoming a major supporter of the Shas education system and many other related projects.
He always reminded Deri, “Don’t look back at what you have done and be content, always look ahead to the future and look to do more.”
He helped create scores of day schools and high schools in this country to educate Jews who would otherwise be lost. Some twenty years ago, he sensed that there was an opportunity to do more. He saw that yungeleit who had previously been hesitant to move to out-of-town communities were prepared to venture forth. He saw a chance to create kollelim, shuls and outreach centers in communities across America where there were none. He saw a chance for Klal Yisroel to reach out to Jews in every corner of this land, forsaking no one.
With much siyata diShmayah and thanks to him, Torah Umesorah and Rav Chaim Noson Segal, TU’s Director of Community Development, were able to create hundreds of kollelim, new yeshivos, new day schools, projects, programs and organizations across this country. That was because Mr. Wolfson never stopped pursuing his dream to enable every Jew anywhere to be exposed to the beauty of Judaism at every level.
When Rabbi Segal first met with Mr. Wolfson, he was active in five communities. Since the day Mr. Wolfson began actively supporting and encouraging Rabbi Segal and Torah Umesorah, the effort expanded to reach 180 towns and cities across the country. All because of the determination and drive of one man for Torah and Yiddishkeit.
The simple man who rode in coach, who immigrated from Lithuania as a poor orphan and never forgot where he came from, impacted cities such as Seattle, Washington, where he enabled a kollel to grow and expand so that it has become a major force, not only in the city itself, but in the entire northwest region of this country as well. In Houston, Texas, he enabled a revolution to take place. In Dallas, Texas, he supported a kollel and enabled it to establish satellite communities. In Portland, Oregon, he helped create a kollel, bring a new rov to town, and open a school. He helped the kollelim in Minneapolis, St. Louis, Phoenix and Pittsburgh. He supported dozens of projects and programs in the states of California, Florida and New Jersey and hundreds more all across the country.
These are but examples. The list goes on and on.
And in most cases, very few people were aware of his involvement. He didn’t do it for glory. He didn’t do it for fame. He did it because he thought it was the right thing to do. He did it because he cared about acheinu Bnei Yisroel. He did it for Hashem.
Rabbi Segal says that he knew Zev Wolfson for 45 years, and “his greatness was that he made everyone realize they had greater potential than they ever realized, and because of that, they had greater success than they ever believed they could have.”
His mission will live on in the wonderful acts of kindness in which his wife and children continue to be engaged. It lives on through the dedication of yungeleit across the country whom he motivated and whose salaries he paid. It lives on through the efforts of the people he motivated and inspired, and it lives on through the neshamos of countless Yidden across the world whom he brought tachas kanfei haShechinah.
May his efforts serve as an inspiration to us all to do more than we think we can to spread Torah and kedushah in this world.