A 50-year aliya process bears fruit

90-year-old British businessman and philanthropist Fred Worms has played a huge role in the development of many of Israel’s hallowed institutions.

Fred Worms 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Fred Worms 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
For some people, the decision to move to Israel is a snap judgment, and for others it takes a lifetime. Fred Worms’s aliya story is a little bit of both.
“We’ve been making aliya for 50 years, but two years ago we completed the process and did it properly. Now we’re here permanently and very happy, having joined our children, grandchildren and four great-grandchildren,” the 90-year-old Jerusalem resident and renowned British businessman and philanthropist said last month. He was sitting in the spacious living room of the two-floor luxury apartment overlooking the Old City that he shares with his elegant wife of 60 years, Della.
While Worms may physically be in Israel full-time now, his presence in the country has been felt in remarkable ways almost since the founding of the state. Over decades of philanthropic endeavors, Worms has been involved in building most of the country’s hallowed institutions.His contributions include founding Kfar Hamaccabiah, which hosts the Maccabiah Games; building wings and funding exhibits at the Israel Museum; raising funds to build the Scopus Student Village at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University; and playing important roles in maintaining the capital’s Botanical Gardens, the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and the Hartman Institute, among others.
On the way to Jerusalem and a firstname basis with various prime ministers and mayors, Worms has had many honors bestowed upon him: the presidency of the Maccabi World Union (MWU) from 1982 to 1986 and honorary presidency from 1994; the chairmanship of B’nai B’rith Hillel; an honorary doctorate in 2008 from the Hebrew University, where he has served on the board of governors for 35 years; and in 1998, an OBE (Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) from Queen Elizabeth II for exceptional efforts as chairman of the B’nai B’rith Housing Association of Great Britain, which secured housing for the elderly.
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“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 to Hashem [God], so I’ve been busy for many years doing just that,” said Worms, who became independently wealthy as an entrepreneur in the engineering, automobile accessory and real-estate sectors in post-World War II Britain.
Born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1920, Worms developed a strong combination of Jewish traditionalism and Zionism as a youth, as well as an affinity for sports.
“On the one hand, I was learning in an ultra-Orthodox school during the day, and on the other hand, I became a counselor in the Habonim movement. I also played football for Bar Kochba Frankfurt, which was affiliated with Maccabi,” said Worms.
His parents divorced, and in 1937 Worms and his mother fled Nazi Germany for England. He was interned briefly as an “enemy alien” but eventually settled into his new country, becoming an accountant.
One day in the post-war period, when supplies of everything were short, Worms was at his local car mechanic and heard the manager complain about the shortage of rear-view mirrors.
“I employed an engineer and five workers and started making a new type of mirror. I built it into a group of companies with factories in England and Australia employing 700 people,” said Worms. The entrepreneur also went into first gear on windshield-wiper squirters and sun roofs, becoming one of England’s biggest suppliers for both.
His livelihood thriving, Worms committed his time to raising his three daughters with Della, whom he married in 1951, and promoting Jewish education and sports at every turn. In addition to developing a lifelong passion for tennis, he continued the allegiance to Maccabi he had forged in Germany, joining Maccabi Compayne Gardens (“I was a reasonable player”) and eventually climbing the ranks of the organization until he became head of Maccabi World Union. He was present at the first Maccabiah Games after the establishment of the state in 1950 (two games took place in pre-state Palestine in 1932 and 1935).
“We slept in tents where the Tel Aviv Hilton is today. It was called Mahaneh Yehuda,” he recalled. After the 1955 games, Worms co-founded and helped build Kfar Hamaccabiah to permanently house the Jewish athletes who arrived from around the world for the subsequent games. He proudly stated that he’d attended every Maccabiah since then.
As avid a sportsman as he was, Worms was just as committed to Jewish education and its connection to Israel. He was chairman of B’nai B’rith Hillel for 25 years, and enrolled his daughters in Bnei Akiva. They became madrichot (counselors), and upon reaching age 18, each moved to Israel.
“Israel was always an integral part of our lives. We would ski in Switzerland in the winters and spend each summer in Israel,” said Worms. “We’ve had a home there since 1965, when we bought a big place in Herzliya Pituah.”
He expanded his holding in Israel after becoming friendly with then-mayor of Jerusalem Teddy Kollek, when the venerable city leader came to London to speak at a Worms-sponsored Hillel event.
“‘Fred, I want a promise from you – next time you come to Jerusalem, I want you to call me,’” Worms remembered Kollek telling him. “‘Look, Teddy, if it’s money you want, I can’t spare any. Whatever I have goes into my movements and organizations,’ I told him. But he didn’t care, he just said to call him.”
That connection resulted in Worms buying a plot of land from The Jerusalem Foundation that housed an old shack, and building a second home in Israel. The house became the residence of one of his daughters and her family, and more recently Worms and his wife bought and renovated their current home, near the King David Hotel.
Worms’s connection with Kollek continued, and one day, he wanted to thank the mayor for helping him find the Yemin Moshe property.
“I asked him what he wanted for his 75th birthday, and he said, ‘I want to pray in a synagogue in Cochin,’” said Worms. “‘Teddy, I didn’t know you were religious, but okay, I’ll pay for your first-class fare to Cochin,’ I told him. “‘No, I want the Cochin synagogue to come to Israel,’ Teddy said, so that’s how we ended up bringing the Kadavumbagam synagogue to the Israel Museum,” recalled Worms, referring to the 1991 purchase, shipment, renovation and reconstruction of the synagogue interior that is now featured in the museum’s “Synagogue Route” wing. The Wormses have also endowed the Della and Fred Worms OBE Gallery in the European art wing of the museum.
Since making aliya two years ago, the Wormses have become active in local Jerusalem endeavors, attending lectures with Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, weekly classes at Pardes, events and services at the Great Synagogue, and – for Fred, until recently – tearing up the tennis court at age 90 in weekly doubles matches with opponents half his age.
“I have no regrets. I went to shul yesterday morning, and a fellow gave me his book that included a number of essays by prominent people dealing with the subject of happiness. It turns out that most people don’t know it when they have it,” he said.
“I said to Della last night that I was sitting here thinking what a lucky man I’ve been. All my life has been more ‘mazal’ [luck] than ‘sechel [brains].’ All I know is that I have a personal God who looks after me,” he said. “Here I am sitting in this beautiful home with one of the most famous views in the world; out on the patio is an assemblage of flower pots with flowers that my wife has reared from little pods, there are lovely sculptures by Kadishman all around.”
Finally living full-time in the country that his passion, determination and money helped build, he reflected without rose-tinted glasses on the accomplishments of the country after 62 years – and what still needed to be done.
“I’m not sure if the term ‘nes mehashamayim’ [miracle from heaven] is quite true. I think the ‘nes’ is aliya after aliya from different countries that has brought fresh thinking and new concepts to Israel. I’d say we’ve had pretty rapid integration, all things considered, and that what the Russian aliya has done to his country has been just terrific,” said Worms.
“However, I think that the education in Israel, its universities and schools reached their peak about three or four years ago, and at the moment I fear, because of budget cuts, there’s been a bit of decline that must be stopped. This is a great danger,” he went on.
“But living in Eretz Yisrael is such a pleasure. Israel is a lifesaver. My life didn’t need saving, but I could feel the pressure in London. If you walk around with a kippa in the open, there’s a good chance that you’d be attacked. Look out the window here,” he said, pointing to the vista outside, “and you can see people walking around with their tzitzit hanging out. We really are in our own country and can feel at home.”
Worms singled out his own family experience – his grandson served in the Golani Brigade and his granddaughter in an IDF intelligence unit – and connected it to Independence Day.
“Yom Ha’atzmaut is a great thing – it’s our independence, the fact that we can stand up for ourselves. I take pride in contributing to the fact that Israel is a strong country,” he said.
Indeed, without Fred Worms, the landscape and complexion of Israel at 63 might have looked very different.