It’s difficult to imagine going to a cultural event in Jerusalem, especially one that is being held by a religious Zionist organization without bumping into Toby Willig and getting a wet kiss on the cheek.
Willig, who was a legendary figure both in Jerusalem – where she lived since 1986 – and also in her native New York, died on Wednesday at age 92.
Her zest for life and her youthful spirit were at odds with her chronological age.
Even when she could barely walk she had relatives or friends, especially her grandson Gary Willig, accompany her to where she wanted to go. They went with her to concerts, lectures, plays, gala dinners in luxury hotels and on trips to West Bank settlements.
When her eyesight began to fail, she had people read The Jerusalem Post and other publications to her from the first to the last page.
She was arguably one of the world’s most avid listeners to English radio news and a voracious consumer of newspapers. She was also a spontaneous letter writer, reacting on a daily basis to news items – which either enthralled or upset her.
For thirty years she used to call Renee Becker at home or in the Emunah Jerusalem office to dictate letters that were her “Letter to the Editor” for the day.
Her criticism when she gave it, was always constructive. She never said a bad word about anyone but when she strongly disagreed with some public figure and wrote one of her many letters to the editor, sometimes under an assumed name, she would ask what made that person do or say whatever it was that went against the grain.
Often before she ever wrote or dictated a letter, she would call the editor of the publication in question – usually the Post – and ask why a certain article had been published, or why a certain writer was being published too frequently or infrequently. Most of the time, she found something good in everyone.
Aside from writing letters to editors of English language publications locally, she also wrote letters to The Jewish Press in New York, and many years ago wrote a social column for the paper that featured many former New Yorkers living in Israel. She always wrote about them in glowing terms and was equally enthusiastic about the events at which she had seen them.
In the thirty odd years since she made aliya with her late husband Herbie, she never learned to speak Hebrew, but that didn’t seem to be an impediment. She spoke English on the bus, in the supermarket, at the post office and somehow managed to communicate effectively.
She was a knowledgeable and often an inspiring public speaker with a natural radio-phonic voice. If she was talking about an issue, that was fine, but when she was introducing a speaker, she went overboard with superlatives. The speaker was often embarrassed, but the audience who knew this to be one of her traits took all the compliments she showered on the guest speaker in good humor. This was Toby, and there was no changing her.
She was someone who had to be in the middle of everything. First thing in the morning, she would call several of her friends and acquaintances to tell them about news she’d heard on the radio. She would ask what they were doing and where they were going that day. Even before she called them, when Israel Radio still had an early morning English news broadcast, she would call the editor or the news reader to voice her opinion of what she had heard.
At her funeral on Thursday, Rabbi Berel Wein, whose Torah classes she religiously attended, said she was a person of many opinions born out of love for Israel and the Jewish people.
When something impinged on that love, it caused her to write a letter to vent her opinion. At lectures, she was always the first to ask a question or make a statement, but what she said always made sense.
Even when she could barely walk, at weddings, her feet suddenly took wing and she made it her business to dance with the bride – not only that, but when the bride was dancing with her mother, her mother-in-law and other close family in a small circle Willig joined in.
Willig never saw this as an intrusion on her part, because she genuinely regarded everyone as an extension of her family – and family was very important to her.
Nearly all the speakers at the funeral were related to her. They spoke of her brilliant mind, her ability to soak up information like a sponge, her in-depth knowledge of the Bible, the seminars she organized, her irrepressible optimism, the fund-raising activities for innumerable Jewish causes.
In 1947, when she and Herbie were not yet married but dating, they raised money for the Jewish National Fund. When Israel became a state, they raised money for other causes.
Before making aliya, Willig was president of Emunah of America. She was a person who believed that no-one could achieve everything alone, and she strongly encouraged teamwork and was forever coming up with new ideas that would spur more people into action on behalf of Israel and of Soviet Jewry.
She remained closely affiliated with Emunah after making aliya, but she was also strongly affiliated with AACI, the Orthodox Union and Young Israel.
She also had connections with the Great Synagogue, Yeshurun Synagogue, HaNasi Synagogue and Chabad, to name a few.
Many in the huge crowd that came to escort her on her final journey said that the world would never be the same without her.
She knew just about everyone who was anyone, and they knew her – often when an international speaker had agreed to answer questions, he instantly acknowledged her by name without waiting for the moderator to do so.
She treated needy individuals with the same affection and respect that she gave to dignitaries.
Willig is survived by her daughter Ruth Koenigsburg of Jerusalem, sons David A. Willig and Joey Willig and their families in New York.