Think Again: Zev Wolfson, a larger-than-life figure

The full account of his giving is unknown because Wolfson did not want the world to know he was a giver.

Money cash Shekels currency 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
Money cash Shekels currency 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
The only notice in these pages of the passing last week of Zev Wolfson was a brief Jewish Telegraph Agency story, which mistakenly placed his burial in Jerusalem.
This is odd, given that he was the greatest Jewish philanthropist in recent history – and arguably in Jewish history.
Wolfson would no doubt have been amused by the lack of media attention; He spent a lifetime avoiding the limelight. Whereas most givers condition their largesse on buildings being named after them, he was the opposite. All his institutional giving was conditioned on there being no mention of it.
Shunning recognition was only one aspect of how he differed from other philanthropists. He did not just give his money to existing organizations and institutions. He pursued a specific agenda and encouraged those who took the initiative in developing projects furthering that agenda. He once described his philosophy of giving as supporting those projects and institutions that others were not.
One such area was Jewish schooling for Russian speaking children after the fall of the Soviet Union – whether in New York City, the FSU, or Israel. Another was the Otzar HaTorah network of schools, primarily for North African immigrants, in France.
A full account of his giving is impossible. He himself did not know how much he had given, or to whom. He did not recognize someone to whom he had given a $100,000 check two weeks later. But the bulk of his largesse over the last two decades was to promoting knowledge of Torah among non-observant Jews around the globe.
A WAR refugee from Vilna at the age of 13, he spent the remainder of the war in Siberia. At 15, he carried his father’s dead body over his shoulder to bury him in the frozen tundra, and took responsibility for the support of his mother and younger brother.
The experience of the war no doubt contributed to his lifelong obsession with ensuring the continued existence of the Jewish people. But it cannot fully explain his sense of mission. He was totally sui generis – incomparable to anyone I have ever met in his relentless drive and refusal to be deterred once he had fixed upon a particular goal. He could not be humiliated and thus was undeterred by the possibility of embarrassment. And he was deaf to the word “no.”
A group of young Orthodox professionals once came to his office for advice about how to become involved in Jewish communal activity. He said, “You’re not interested in becoming involved. If you were interested, you would just do it and not talk about it.” He proceeded to tell them that when he was their age, he had taken a train to Washington and knocked on every senator’s door. All but one slammed the door in his face.
On another early Washington trip, the secretary of a senator he had wanted to see refused him entry. He told the friend who accompanied him to distract the secretary, jumped over the office partition and walked into the senator’s office.
IT IS impossible to disburse tens of millions of dollars in charitable contributions annually in complete anonymity. But in one area, Wolfson’s contributions were unknown outside of the upper echelons of the Israeli government. For decades, he acted as a private, one-man diplomatic corps for Israel in the US Congress.
In his early 20s, barely five years after arriving in the United States, he had already figured out the levers of power in Congress to a remarkable degree. The managing partner of one of the world’s most prestigious law firms opined at the shiva house last week that if American leaders during the Holocaust had possessed his understanding of how much could be done in Congress, rather than focusing entirely on petitioning President Roosevelt, many more Jews might have been saved.
A former senior official in the Finance Ministry told me that apart from Pinhas Sapir, he cannot think of another person who had such an impact on Israel’s early economic viability.
Wolfson was personally responsible for saving Israel hundreds of millions of dollars in interest payments on US government loans on several occasions by working together with leading figures in Congress, most prominently Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, to alter Israel’s repayment terms or transform loans into grants.
In 1985, during a period of hyperinflation in Israel, Wolfson shepherded through Congress a bill that permitted Israel to refinance billions of dollars of existing high-interest loans at much lower interest rates by prepaying the existing balance with the benefit of US loan guarantees. In 1989, when Israel was in desperate need of money to absorb hundreds of thousands of refugees from the FSU, Wolfson played a major role in securing $10 billion in US government loan guarantees.
Nor were his efforts on behalf of Israel limited to the economic sphere. In 1968, Israel’s ambassador to the US, Yitzhak Rabin, sought language in the foreign aid bill favoring the sale of Phantom jets to Israel. He turned to Wolfson to use his connections on Capitol Hill, and it was done. The two men became close friends. Wolfson was on the phone with Rabin from the moment he landed in Israel, and would often stop at the Rabin’s Ramat Aviv apartment on his way back to the airport.
Just before the first Gulf War, Wolfson invited Senator Inouye out on his boat and asked if there was not anything in the American arsenal to protect Israel from Iraqi Scuds. Inouye told him about the Patriot missile batteries. Wolfson asked him why the US had not supplied Israel with the Patriots.
Inouye replied that Israel must not have sought them. Wolfson immediately got on the phone and called Rabin to relay the message. The next day’s New York Times headline read, “US to supply Patriots to Israel.” The last paragraph explained that the decision had been made after a meeting between “US officials and Jewish leaders.”
The vast majority of his lobbying efforts, particularly in the economic sphere, were at his own initiative.
Had those efforts not been conducted entirely under the radar, without any fanfare or publicity, they could never have been successful.
While Wolfson hosted many fund-raising affairs for politicians and made modest political contributions of his own, the source of his greatest influence was his passion for the causes that he believed in.
Former Senate majority leader Trent Lott attributed much of Wolfson’s influence in Congress to the fact that he never sought anything for himself.
His political connections also benefited Jewish education around the globe. From the early ’60s through the mid-’70s, he secured US government funding, under the USAID program, to build dozens of residential educational institutions in Israel. Most of those institutions served children of refugees from Arab countries – a group particularly close to his heart. He also persuaded French president Jacques Chirac to make available the land for the Otzar HaTorah schools in France. In gratitude for the enormous sums his efforts saved Israel, the Israeli government distributed tens of millions of dollars to Jewish educational institutions in the FSU, France and Israel at his suggestion.
HE LIVED with a sense of mission. Meeting Wolfson for the first time, the chairman of Merrill Lynch asked him how he had acquired his wealth. “God gave it to me,” he replied. He felt no need to expand.
He believed that his wealth was entrusted to him only so long as he used it for God’s purposes. Into his 70s, he still traveled economy class on his frequent trips to Israel. He once berated the director of one of his programs for bringing him bottled rather than tap water in a hotel lobby. In the midst of the most intense business negotiations, he rarely failed to take a call concerning one of his projects or from a family member.
At an age when others with similar wealth are contemplating their retirement homes, he was still trying to squeeze every last dollar for charitable work. When a website went up that offered to process credit-card charitable contributions without deducting fees from the recipient charity, he gave so many millions of dollars that the owners of the site sometimes had to close it down.
He was a demanding boss, in charitable endeavors no less than business. He insisted on accountability in all his charitable projects and empirical markers to determine progress. (A daughter said at the shiva that she had grown up thinking her father was a school principal, so many times had she heard him shout over the phone “How many students?”) He made it clear to recipients that his goal was not to make their lives easier but to extract the maximum from them.
That included preparing themselves for financial independence so he could start new projects.
He brusquely put a stop to anyone who thanked him or praised him. He firmly believed that “Anyone could have done what I did. You just have to try.”
The only compliment I ever saw him accept with a smile was: “You didn’t spoil your children.” He could not make them as tough as he was – they did not have to endure the same childhood experiences – but he pushed them hard not to give up on tasks and to use their time to the maximum. He could grumble over the course of an entire Shabbat about a teenage son’s purchase of a $20 tie he considered excessive, and a number of the children told me they first learned they were rich from classmates or their spouses.
Every one of his 10 children is fully involved in the family business of ensuring the Jewish future – three of them as front-line Jewish outreach workers. That was his greatest pride.
The writer is director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.