Philanthropist Fred Worms dies at 91

Businessman gave to Jerusalem’s cultural and religious life, ‘spent 50 years making aliya.’

Fred Worms (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Fred Worms
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
It’s difficult to know whether Frankfurt-born philanthropist Fred Worms, who died on Monday at age 91, should be referred to as a German, a Brit or an Israeli. In fact, he too had an identity problem in this regard judging by his autobiography A Life in Three Cities: Frankfurt, London and Jerusalem published in June 1996.
The highly successful businessman and benefactor greatly contributed to developing the cultural, sporting and religious landscape of Jerusalem and Israel. He is best known for establishing Kfar Hamaccabia in Ramat Gan, which hosts the Maccabia Games, and cofounding the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.
Though he and his wife Della only made aliya in 2009, they have been active in the life of the country for decades.
“We’ve been making aliya for 50 years, but two years ago we completed the process and did it properly,” Worms told The Jerusalem Post last year.
“I had a remarkably lucky and wealthy business career, and I knew I had to pay something back to ‘Medinat Yisrael’ [the State of Israel] and Hashem [God], so I’ve been busy for many years doing just that.”
Worms, who amassed his wealth as an entrepreneur in engineering, automobile accessory and real estate in post-World War II Britain, gave together with his wife to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to build the Scopus Student Village, the capital’s Botanical Gardens, the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Hillel, the Israel Museum, Emunah, the B’nai B’rith World Center, the Pelech and Efrata schools, the Shalom Hartman Institute, the Steinsaltz Institute for Jewish Studies and the Jerusalem Foundation, among others.
Worms was born into an Orthodox home in Frankfurt on November 21, 1920. He was a Zionist from an early age and a member of the Habonim Dror movement. When the Nazis came to power in Germany, it was no longer possible for Jewish schools or youth groups to have their summer camps in Germany and the Habonim camp moved to Switzerland where Worms took on a leadership role.
As life in Germany became increasingly difficult for Jews, Worms’ mother, Meta, who divorced his father when Worms was 10 years old, decided Germany had become too dangerous, and so in April 1937 she sent her son, who was then 16, to London.
He enrolled at St. Paul’s School in Hammersmith.
Going to a church school was a major culture shock for the boy who only a few weeks earlier had been a pupil at the Samson Raphael Hirsch School in Frankfurt.
After leaving school in 1939, Worms applied for a job as an articled clerk with a highly reputed accounting firm. The young man had the audacity to tell his employer that he would not work on Sabbath or other Jewish holidays. The employer, who had offered him a good salary, was taken aback and reminded him that he was in the heart of London, not the East End, then a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. Worms apologized for wasting the man’s time, but the employer, who was also Jewish, was impressed with his integrity and made the concession.
When the war broke out, Worms, like many other German refugees during the war, both Jewish and non-Jewish, was interned as an enemy alien briefly.
Afterwards, Worms worked as a chartered accountant and eventually became an entrepreneur in the engineering and motor car industry.
In 1950, Della Rosenberg, a pretty young woman at the Norrice Lea Synagogue, caught his eye, and he found himself concentrating less on the service and more on her. He proposed to her after a seven-week courtship.
They were engaged for nine months and married in the Norrice Lea Synagogue on February 6, 1951.
The couple had three daughters – Nadia, Hilary and Caroline – who each left home at age 18 and settled in Israel. It was in the cards that their parents would follow.
Fred and Della Worms, an inseparable couple, frequently visited Jerusalem not only to visit their daughters, grandchildren, and eventually great- grandchildren, but also to attend to their many philanthropic projects.
Through the Fred and Della Worms Charitable Trust and the separate Fred Worms Charitable Trust, they supported numerous causes in Britain and Israel, particularly those supporting education, cultural heritage, the arts, the environment and conservation.
In 1998, Queen Elizabeth II conferred the title of Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire on Worms in appreciation of his exceptional efforts as chairman of the B’nai B’rith Housing Association of Great Britain which had provided housing for the elderly.
Worms, a lover of sports, belonged to the Maccabi Sports Club. After serving in various positions with British Maccabi and the Maccabi World Union, Worms succeeded Pierre Gildesgame as president of the MWU, serving in that role from 1982 to 1986. In 1994 he was elected honorary president, and retired from the post on May 2, 2010, to coincide with Herzl’s 150th birthday.
In 1992, Della and Fred Worms were awarded the Jerusalem Medal, designed by Jacques Lifshitz, for Benefactors of the Holy City. Two years later, they were made honorary fellows of the Israel Museum.
The Worms have been committed supporters of the Israel Museum since soon after its establishment, but their most meaningful contribution came in 1990, when Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek, the founder of both the Israel Museum and the Jerusalem Foundation, was celebrating his 75th birthday.
Worms asked him what he wanted for his birthday.
Kollek replied that he would like to pray in the Cochin synagogue. The Worms were quite happy to pay for his trip to India, but that’s not what he meant. Kollek wanted to pray in the Cochin synagogue in Jerusalem.
He wanted the ancient synagogue to be brought to the capital and to be permanently installed in the Israel Museum.
Kollek’s wish was their command, and the Cochin synagogue, which had been dismantled and reassembled at the Israel Museum, was formally opened to the public in June 1995 with the participation of the Indian ambassador and some 400 Indian Israelis from Bombay and Cochin.
In June 2011, Worms received the Teddy Kollek award in a ceremony at the Knesset, particularly meaningful in light of his long and close relationship with the famed Jerusalem mayor.
When the Worms family first acquired a property in Herzliya some 50 years ago, they continued to commute to London, where so many of their friends had summer homes.
But later, thanks to Kollek, they moved to Jerusalem. They were looking for an apartment for one of their daughters and Kollek suggested that they purchase a ruin in Yemin Moshe from the Jerusalem Foundation and rebuild it in accordance with their needs.
This is exactly what they did, including building a separate small apartment for themselves. They later moved to King David’s Court, adjacent to the King David Hotel, which became their permanent home when they made aliya in 2009 and not just their holiday home.
Notwithstanding advancing age, Worms continued his philanthropic activities in Jerusalem, and never lost his enthusiasm for Jerusalem’s cultural life. He participated in recent events at the Israel Museum, in mid- April he attended the launch of the Living Water section of the Children’s Discovery Garden at the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens, and in January was in the audience for British actor David Weston’s presentation at the Konrad Adenauer Center of Shakespeare in Jerusalem.
Worms made aliya to Jerusalem, a city that he loved dearly, more so because the walls of the Old City were visible from the balcony of his apartment.
His final resting place is neither in Frankfurt nor in London, but Jerusalem, which captured both his heart and his mind.
His funeral took place at Har Hamenuchot cemetery in Jerusalem’s Givat Shaul on Monday evening.