We need to be grateful now for having Israel as a place that protects Jews

JAFI board chair Mark Wilf set to lead this year’s March of the Living in Poland

  Mark Wilf, Chairman of the Board of Governors, Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) (photo credit: Courtesy)
Mark Wilf, Chairman of the Board of Governors, Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI)
(photo credit: Courtesy)

Mark Wilf, the board chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), is looking forward to leading the International March of the Living in Poland on April 26 and celebrating Independence Day in Israel with other participants 10 days later. As a son of Holocaust survivors from Poland, he stresses the vital importance of Israel in a Zoom interview from his home in Florida. Referring to his parents, Joseph and Elizabeth Wilf, he says, “The value they taught us was that it is very important to have a strong State of Israel, because the only thing that can really protect the Jewish people is to have a country and a presence and to be able to stand up for ourselves.” Wilf’s father, who died in 2016, was the first North American chair of the March of the Living, which dedicated the 2017 March of the Living to his memory. Wilf, who was born in 1962, received a B.A. from Princeton and a J.D. from the New York University School of Law, and after graduating, joined his family's real estate business. Based in New Jersey, he has served as National Campaign Chairman for the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) and was elected Chair of their Board of Trustees in 2018. He took over as chair of JAFI’s board in July 2022. He also serves as president and co-owner of the Minnesota Vikings with his brother Zygi, as well as chairman and co-owner of the Orlando City soccer club. He and his wife Jane, whom he married in 1990, have four children.

As a second-generation survivor, tell us a bit about your family’s story.My parents and grandparents were Holocaust survivors. My parents were both from Poland. My father was born in a small town called Jarosław, was in a Siberian labor camp for a couple of years, and his family lived out the war in a remote part of Russia, not far from the Tashkent area. My mother was born in Lvov (now Lviv), which is now Ukraine. My grandmother, my mother and my uncle managed to escape the ghetto in Lvov by getting working papers to work not far from Lvov. My grandfather did not have those papers, so they hid him under the floorboards of a barn on their farm. The woman who owned the farm did not know they were Jewish, and it was a very harrowing day-to-day existence. After the war, the Russian Army liberated that area, and they went to Augsburg in Germany. My father’s family and my mother’s family were both in that town. They met there and married in 1949, and they ultimately went to the United States in 1950, sponsored by the Birmingham, Alabama Jewish community. From Alabama, they went to the New York area, and that’s where they began their life in America. My family and I are so grateful for the role that the USA played in welcoming my family and many others, providing freedom and opportunity to live and thrive freely. I’m the youngest of three children. My older brother was born in Germany.
What values did your parents inculcate into you?

My dad and his brother went to Zionist camps and they were very Zionist growing up before the war. The main value my parents inculcated into us growing up is that many of their relatives had perished in the Shoah and they were refugees with no one to take care of them because there was no State of Israel. The value they taught us was that it is very important to have a strong State of Israel, because the only thing that can really protect the Jewish people is to have a country and a presence and to be able to stand up for ourselves. They brought us up with family values of course, the love of Judaism and the love of Israel. Despite what they went through, those are the values they lived and they talked about every single day. They lived their lives to give back and make sure that when we give back, we build a strong community and a strong State of Israel.

What is your association with the March of the Living?

I have not been on the March of the Living per se. My dad was one of the founders of the March of the Living and he has gone with some of my nephews and was very proud of that fact. I did go on a journey with my dad in 1985 back to Poland and Russia, and I saw the home towns of my parents, which very much reinforced the idea of the March of the Living. What I understood then is that they had a Jewish life not so different from what I had in America. They went to school, they had friends, their parents had businesses, and they had a normal life. When the horrors of the Holocaust happened, they reinforced the idea that the only thing that can protect us is a strong State of Israel, and that horrible things can happen anywhere if good people don’t act, and people don’t care about the other. March of the Living is very much in that spirit. I have been to some of the sites of the concentration camps with our two older children, and I very much look forward to going with my wife Jane and our two other children to participate in this year’s March of the Living.

How concerned are you about maintaining the memory of the Shoah?

Very, and this goes with not only the values that I was brought up with, but it applies to all of us: Education in general, and certainly education about the Holocaust, is imperative for all of us, to teach the younger generation and also many older individuals who are unaware as well. As the numbers of Holocaust survivors continues to decline and antisemitism continues to spike, it is crucial that the Jewish people unite around this issue and ensure that the atrocities of the Holocaust are not forgotten. One important way for this to happen is to strengthen the identity of Jews around the world and the connection between global Jewish communities and Israel, and that’s the primary mission of the Jewish Agency. You just have to look at the newspapers to see this is the world we’re living in. We have to be ever vigilant and make sure we educate, connect and have that unbreakable bond one to another as a Jewish people and also to all people in the world, to make sure the memory of the Holocaust is very much up front and center, because the lesson of the Holocaust is again that intolerance, bigotry and lack of compassion can lead to truly horrendous and horrible things. The strength and perseverance of the Jewish people are critical tools in creating a world in which the next generations of our children and grandchildren can live their dreams, pursue their pursuits and not fear the horrors we witnessed during the Holocaust.

How crucial is education in combating antisemitism?

I think it’s hugely important. If you study the history of the Holocaust, it started with small laws, gestures and acts, and it escalated, and as each step increased, there was a continued indifference by the world. We have to make sure to nip it in the bud as soon as something is said that is not respectful to the other, intolerance, bigotry, ignorance. Those things have to be called out, and conversations have to happen to educate about the Holocaust, and really explain to people what happened. Holocaust denial, antisemitic rhetoric and in fact, much of the anti-Israel rhetoric is really just an evolution of the same antisemitic canards that have been perpetuated throughout history. They need to be called out not just by the Jewish community but by all communities, and the same goes when there’s intolerance or hatred toward other communities. We have to speak out at all times when there’s intolerance, when there’s hatred of the other, because that leads to a breakdown of civilization, and ultimately to the kinds of horrible things of which the Holocaust is Exhibit A.

What is the Jewish Agency doing in this battle against antisemitism?

A variety of things. The primary mission is to strengthen the identity of Jews around the world and the connection between global Jewish communities. As as far as the fight against antisemitism, our Number 1 tool is people, ambassadors if you will. We have shlichim (emissaries) working on more than a 100 colleges and universities across North America to combat antisemitism. They’re called Israel fellows and they mobilize students and empower them with education, and they provide  model for how to proudly be Jewish without fear and act as a sounding board for fellow students in distress, and many students are in distress. According to Hillel’s Israel Action program, there were 227 antisemitic incidents on campus last year, in addition to 320 anti-Israel incidents, and we’re seeing it far more in the current school year. The Israel Fellows are a driving force behind Jewish leadership on campus and play a big part in fighting antisemitism and of course in strengthening our community as well.

As Israel prepares to celebrate its 75th birthday, how do you propose engaging the younger generation in the Diaspora with Israel?

We have to bring young Jews together, so we have to bring young Israeli Jews to the Diaspora, and vice versa. We have the Masa Israel Journey program, in its 20th year. Some 160,000 young adult participants from more than 60 countries have come to Israel for extended periods of time. These immersive experiences last four to 12 months, and include study, volunteering and career development programs. As I mentioned, we have the Shlichim, the Israel emissaries, who Israel and Israel-centered education and programming to Jewish communities in North America and around the world. I already mentioned the Israel Fellows program, working on colleges around the world. We have the Shinshinim, our Israel high school graduates who delay mandatory service in the IDF to serve local Jewish communities for 10 months. The number of Shinshinim across the Jewish world has more than quadrupled in less than a decade. We need to strengthen both sides of the bridge between our communities, and strengthen the leadership on both sides. We also have partnerships together – PTG – that connects global and Israeli communities, city to city, region to region, which has been working very well for many years. Lastly, we’re also investing in smaller Jewish communities, which have been ignored for far too long. Just this year we have two new 18-year-old emissaries on the ground to serve nine smaller Jewish communities. So it’s a multi-front effort and the Jewish Agency, which I’m privileged and proud to serve as chair of the board of governors, along with Doron Almog, who is chair of the executive, besides the aliyah we’ve done for generations, is focusing in particular on connecting Jews and connecting to each other. The March of the Living is part of that connection, to understand our common heritage and our common challenges, and to be an “Or Lagoyim,” a light unto the nations, in terms of a reminder where intolerance and bigotry can lead if we’re not vigilant. The March of the Living is a powerful program and I very much look forward to the opportunity to build on all this through the March of the Living.

Do you see sport playing a role in all this?

I do believe that the sports business and high profile entertainment are platforms that many people are connected to. For instance, we work with our players in Minnesota and the league in the wake of the George Floyd murder three years ago just down the street from our stadium. We have a Social Justice committee, with our players and our staff, and we’ve given millions of dollars to a multiplicity of causes, whether it’s police and bail reform to education, including Holocaust education. We bring a group of high school students every year to the African American Museum and to the Holocaust Museum, where we learn about various forms of hatred and history. It’s a platform to speak out against things like antisemitism. And yes, it plays a role on the global stage.

 Elizabeth and Joseph Wilf (credit: Courtesy) Elizabeth and Joseph Wilf (credit: Courtesy)
Finally, what is your message to Israel and to our readers?

My message is first and foremost, happy 75th birthday! I know in my own family history and for many of us, look where we were as a people 8o years ago, with no country, with no one in the world that would take us in, or look after us and treat us properly. Now 75 years since the founding, we have a strong State of Israel that we helped build and that we can be proud of as a worldwide community.  The Jewish Agency is very much in that role and we should take pride in that – that we have a strong State of Israel – and we should also renew our commitment for  the future, to recommit ourselves to making sure that we as a Jewish people and the State of Israel serve as an example as a civilization and as a people, and to continue to talk about the importance of tolerance and understanding. May Israel live long and prosper and may its future be bright