There was an unexpected quiet that lingered in the air as dozens of women, children and elderly Jews slowly boarded a bus leading them to freedom at the Ukrainian border in March.
The refugees were fleeing from an uncertain future, many of them holding what few possessions they managed to bring with them in a trash bag or shopping cart.
Yet, despite the massive anxiety many of them were facing, they calmly and methodically got on the bus to Poland, where a myriad of Jewish and Israeli NGOs were eager to welcome them.
In fact, the first thing many of them saw once they arrived on Polish soil was the Israeli flag, proudly flapping in the wind and signaling that their true home was within reach.
It was a moment that moved Mark Wilf, the Jewish Agency for Israel’s newly appointed chairman of the Board of Governors, to his core.
The longtime businessman and philanthropist participated in the trip to Poland as part of his duties as then-chair of the Board of Trustees of The Jewish Federations of North America, but as a son of Holocaust survivors, he could not help but think of the terrifying fate that surely would have awaited many of the refugees if that flag did not exist.
“My dad was from a town ten minutes away from where we stood in Poland. Eighty years ago, there was nobody to protect them. Today, to see a tent city of all the NGOs, hospitals and healthcare services with an Israeli flag on Polish soil, connected me to what happened on those very grounds all those years ago. It was very powerful.”Mark Wilf
“My dad was from a town ten minutes away from where we stood in Poland,” he recalls. “Eighty years ago, there was nobody to protect them. Today, to see a tent city of all the NGOs, hospitals and healthcare services with an Israeli flag on Polish soil, connected me to what happened on those very grounds all those years ago. It was very powerful.”
The global community-wide effort to bring immigrants from Eastern Europe resulted in the Jewish Agency bringing some 13,063 immigrants from Ukraine and 24,210 from Russia and Belarus. Additionally, the momentous undertaking Wilf witnessed was done hundreds of times over, with the organization facilitating 455 buses shuttling refugees from Ukraine to the Romanian, Polish, Hungarian and Moldovan borders.
As such, Wilf is motivated to continue to enrich the community-building efforts that make saving and enriching the lives of Jews around the world possible. He is particularly excited about his new role at the Jewish Agency – an organization that has made community and connections, on a global scale, a foundational part of its ethos since its establishment in 1929.
Finding strength in fellow Jews
FINDING STRENGTH in his fellow Jews is something Mark Wilf learned at an early age from his parents, Joseph and Elizabeth. “I learned from them and in my own journey the incredible power and strength of community and collective responsibility,” he says.
“There was no one to stand up for them,” he says of his parents, grandparents and the millions of Jews who were searching for safety at the time.
“To me, that’s what drives a lot of my involvement in Jewish leadership – support for the State of Israel, a strong Jewish state and a Jewish community in America for my children and their children.”
During his nearly hour-long conversation with the Magazine, Wilf doesn’t utter the iconic Talmudic phrase “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh la zeh” (all the Jewish people are responsible for one another), but he does not need to; it is clearly a philosophy that forms the backbone of his support for the Jewish state.
Wilf’s mindset aligns with present times in which, in addition to the Ukraine crisis, the Jewish community and the world in general have faced a series of defining challenges, from the pandemic to the continued rise of global antisemitism.
“When I look back at events like the Pittsburgh shooting, the pandemic, Operation Guardian of the Walls or the Ukraine war, when these events happen — and they unfortunately happen often — when all these crises occur, it’s clear that being community-oriented, being together, even with all our differences, is what binds us,” he says.
Regarding the Ukraine crisis, Wilf notes the Jewish Agency’s swift global response effort.
“The fact that we had a communal infrastructure, an ability to respond… the Jewish Agency embodies that more than any other organization. That is a critical foundation for contemporary Zionism. The Jewish Agency is uniquely positioned; and if it didn’t exist, you’d have to create it,” he asserts. “It’s easy to represent some of our community, but some have no voice without the agency or collective. We have to make sure the voiceless and ones not easily heard are able to be taken care of.”
AS HE begins his first year in the chairman role, Wilf’s main priority is to boost a number of agency programs that were limited by the pandemic’s restrictions on travel and in-person gatherings – specifically, initiatives that connect Israelis with Jews worldwide. From getting shlichim (Israeli emissaries) back on the ground after some connected with their communities remotely; to enrolling more young adult Jews in Masa Israel Journey for immersive, life-changing experiences in Israel; to enhancing Partnership2Gether, in which Israeli cities and regions partner with communities abroad – Wilf is looking to fortify and enrich the organization’s already robust global network in order to amplify the power of the collective.
“I’m excited that this is getting accelerated again, and a lot of these programs are getting back on track. That’s what excites me a lot: strengthening and building that bridge between the Jewish world and Israel,” he says.
“We had to pause, and now we need to double down and duplicate our efforts. In the past 20 years, Masa brought 160,000 young adults from more than 60 countries to Israel, and that had to take a pause,” the Jewish Agency head says.
“So we have to connect and reconnect, whether it’s P2G or shlichim or the Masa programs and, of course. Birthright. All these programs and connections have to be increased – that will be a big priority for me. These experiences are transformative. Whether people realize it or not, there’s a Jewish journey that energizes and excites so many young people.”
AFTER TRANSITIONING from his Federation chairmanship to his Jewish Agency role with little downtime in between, as well as running his real estate business (Garden Homes) and the Minnesota Vikings football team, Wilf is looking forward to Yom Kippur – when all the noise around him gets dimmed down, and he can enjoy and devote himself to that collective in his own community in New Jersey.
“It’s a time of family and deep personal reflection. When you have that introspection, it re-energizes you. But that experience can be communal as well,” he says of the holy day. “There’s an opportunity to recommit to being stronger together. It’s a great time of gratitude. I’ve always found when you have these pauses like Yom Kippur and you reflect, it’s important to be grateful for that. And to be grateful that we have the State of Israel so that we can practice our religion.
“I know people say it’s a tough day, you’re fasting, there’s penance and serious thought, but there’s also room for gratitude and celebration,” he says.
During Yom Kippur, Wilf particularly treasures the conclusion of the Ne’ilah service, when after the final blowing of the shofar, his congregation sings “Hatikvah.” The song, which everyone in the room has heard countless times, is infused with multiple meanings. In addition to being the national anthem of Israel and a de facto anthem of the Jewish people, it is a profound expression of hope.
“As a Jewish people,” he says, “despite everything we’ve been through and our history, we have to remain ever-hopeful and never cease to work toward building a better future.” ■