The Chicago Cubs. Rabbi Haim Druckman. Gary, Indiana. Michael Jackson. A mohel who performed 30,000 circumcisions. Living the dream of a grandfather to return to the Land of Israel. Diamonds and the Torah. Rarely have I encountered a confluence of people and circumstances as fascinating as I found in my interview with Ari Wolff, whose enthralling story of aliyah begins in Russia, with stops in Toronto, Gary and Chicago, before ending in Ra’anana.
My personal association with the Wolff family dates back some 63 years, on the eighth day following my birth, when I first met his father, Rev. Noah Wolff, one of the preeminent mohalim in the world. But I digress.
Ari Wolff spent his early years in Gary, Indiana, affectionately known to Chicagoans returning home from points east via the Chicago Skyway as one of the ugliest cities in America. Nevertheless, the town needed a community leader, so his father, Noah, who had come to Chicago from Toronto in 1944 and studied at the Hebrew Theological College, moved to Gary, serving as the Jewish community’s mohel, shohet (ritual slaughterer), assistant rabbi, head of the Hebrew school, and synagogue Torah reader.
“It was a very small Jewish community,” recalls Ari, the youngest of five siblings. “We had few playmates, and we were a tight-knit family.”
Ari recalls attending a concert as a child at the local Gary synagogue when the headline performers were The Jackson 5, native Gary residents. Jewish education was paramount to Ari’s parents, Noah and Marylyn, who sent their children daily on the bus, one hour each way, to attend a Jewish day school in Chicago.
In 1968, when Ari was eight years old, the family moved to Chicago, and he grew up in the much larger Jewish community, attending Hillel Torah Day School and the high school of the Hebrew Theological College in Skokie, Illinois.
“Moving to Israel was in the back of my mind,” he says, “but it was not on my radar.” Wolff attributes his eventual aliyah to Israel to three factors – God, who he says directed him along the way; Rabbi Druckman, at whose yeshiva he studied during his second year in Israel; and his wife, Chana, a native-born Israeli, and her family. Ari and Chana first met in Chicago when Chana’s family spent a sabbatical in Chicago during her sophomore year in high school. Her scientist father worked at Argonne National Laboratory, and her mother taught Hebrew at the Ida Crown Jewish Academy.
Ari and Chana didn’t connect until he arrived in Israel to spend a year studying at Yeshivat Sha’alvim. “We reconnected two days before I started yeshiva,” he says, recalling with a smile that it wasn’t the ideal time to begin a relationship, just before a year of intense yeshiva studies.
Studying in Israel under Rabbi Haim Druckman
The following year, Ari studied at Yeshivat Or Etzion, which was headed by Druckman, one of the leading rabbis of the religious-Zionist movement. “It was a small yeshiva at the time. Druckman’s exuberance and Zionism rubbed off on me,” says Wolff. After spending seven months studying at Or Etzion, Ari decided to stay in Israel permanently.
In 1980, Ari and Chana got married. They studied at Bar-Ilan University during their first year of marriage and then came to Chicago to finish school. Ari received his CPA license and, sticking to their original plan, returned to Israel on June 19, 1984, with Chana and their one-year-old daughter. Perhaps coincidentally – perhaps not – our interview is taking place on the 19th of Sivan, exactly 39 years to the day since their aliyah.
While conceding that his aliyah was difficult for his parents, he says that they were tremendously supportive of his decision, which he says was a significant factor in his successful aliyah.
Ari and Chana arrived in Ra’anana that summer, and he spent what he calls three uneventful years working as an accountant. One Shabbat day, while sitting in the synagogue – “the best place for Jews to network,” he quips – he met the owner of a substantial diamond business. After developing a friendship, Ari was offered the opportunity to enter the diamond industry, which usually does not admit outsiders to the profession; spots are usually reserved for family members. Ari began working for the Schachter family, one of the leading global diamond families, and he quickly rose through the ranks to a senior management position.
“Working with the Schachter family,” he says, “afforded me vast experience in all aspects of the industry. They are considered the Harvard of the diamond world.”
Getting into the diamond business, and its spiritual side
Ari prospered in the diamond business, living comfortably with his wife and five children in Ra’anana and visiting family in the US on his frequent business trips. Chana achieved her own measure of success, teaching English at Bar-Ilan University, Ono Academic College and Reichman University.
As a successful diamantaire and active investor in real estate and start-ups, Ari began to look for deeper meaning in his profession. Several years ago, he met businessman Ronen Priewer, who has extensively researched the relationship between diamonds and the spiritual world. Wolff was intrigued by Priewer’s research, decided to take an active role as an entrepreneur, and together they formed Or Yahalom, which develops products that connect the epitome of the physical world with the spiritual.
“Diamonds were not placed on the breastplate of the high priest in the Temple solely for the purpose of status, bling-bling or jewelry,” says Wolff. Rather, he notes, the 12 precious stones on the breastplate made up the Urim and Thummim, a means by which the Jewish people communicated with God in ancient times. Extending the analogy a bit further, he adds, “Man has been polishing rough diamonds for thousands of years to maximize the light that shines from precious stones. Similarly, the Jewish people have been toiling over the Torah for generations to uncover the light that is hidden in the secrets of the Torah. We are changing how diamonds are perceived in the world – it is a disruption of sorts.”
The two developed a collection of artistic Bibles known as the “Diamond Bibles,” leather-bound Bibles with a diamond-laden cover. The Diamond Bible products are being sold at three luxury hotels in Israel and at several affiliates in the United States. Additional products are under development.
Wolff, who was active in sports in his youth and still works out frequently, likens living in Israel to being an active participant in Jewish history, rather than a spectator. “I’m privileged to be invited to the game and playing on the field of history,” he says, “as opposed to waiting in line outside the stadium.”
With that being said, Ari, a devoted Cubs fan, was delighted that he was able to witness the Cubs’ seventh-game victory over the Cleveland Indians in the 2016 World Series. Wolff had landed earlier that morning in New York on a business trip, and when he learned that the Cubs had won the sixth game earlier that evening when he was in transit, realized that he had to get to Cleveland for the once-in-a-lifetime experience of watching the Cubs play in the World Series. Ari flew to Cleveland and managed to get tickets from a relative. Though his hair and beard are today flecked with gray, he describes the event with the enthusiasm of a teen.
Since moving to Israel 39 years ago, he has never looked back. Yet, aliyah has been in his family for many years.
“By moving to Israel, I have fulfilled the dream of my grandfather Chaim,” he says. In 1934, Chaim Wolff, a successful manufacturer of specialty chocolates who was living in Toronto, traveled to Israel by boat to visit his mother, who had moved to Israel 25 years earlier from Russia, on the advice of her doctors, who suggested that she move to a warmer climate to cure her respiratory issues.
When Chaim Wolff arrived in Israel, he was so captivated by the Holy Land, Ari relates, that he decided on the spot to move the entire family from Toronto to Tel Aviv. He sent word to his wife to come, together with their four children, including six-year-old Noah. Tragically, shortly after their arrival, Chaim became ill with cancer. He had to sell the land he had purchased on Dizengoff Street so the family could buy return tickets to sail back to Canada, where he underwent treatment. Chaim died several months after they returned to Toronto.
THE ISRAEL of 2023, says Ari, is much different from the country to which he arrived in 1984.
“When we came to Ra’anana, there were one or two stoplights on Ahuza Street,” he says. “Today, there are 16.” Ari and Chana did not have a phone for their first three years living in Israel, and he has vivid memories of standing at a pay phone, calling his parents collect, and then having them return his call.
Despite those difficulties, he says that life in Israel was simpler and more innocent. “People today have higher expectations. In a way, aliyah is easier when one has fewer expectations.”
He also laments the minimal amount of Hebrew that is taught in day schools in North America, compared to when he made aliyah. “The lack of Hebrew that is taught makes aliyah more difficult and is a barrier. It is unfortunate.”
Ari has lived the majority of his life in Israel but still retains the aliyah innocence of his youth. “I still get emotional on Independence Day,” he says. “I get choked up watching the Hidon Hatanach [International Bible Contest] and the Israel Prize ceremonies.” For Wolff, this year’s celebrations were especially meaningful, as his oldest grandson celebrated his bar mitzvah that day.
Diamonds have been the passion and the key to his successful aliyah, and Wolff adds that the process by which diamonds are formed is akin to life in Israel. “Diamonds are formed over time with intense heat and extreme pressure. It is similar to life, especially in Israel.” He has handled the stress of living in this country with aplomb, switching careers, achieving success and, ultimately, as he puts it, “living the dream.” ■
ARI WOLFF FROM CHICAGO TO RA’ANANA, 1984