Zev Wolfson: One of a Kind

August 26, 2012

13 min read


One of the greatest Jewish philanthropists made sure to stay under the radar. What was behind his relentless drive?

Every human being is unique, but most at least fall into certain broad categories and possess traits that are similar to others. Zev Wolfson z”l, who passed away last week at the age of 84, however, can be truly described as sui generis, a one-of-a-kind individual unlike anyone in the generation (and perhaps in previous generations as well). I asked him many times what was the source of his intense drive, but never received any kind of satisfactory response. Idle speculation, with no connection to practical results, held no interest for him. And of all the subjects for which he had no interest or time, the subject of Zev Wolfson ranked near the top.

He was just post–bar mitzvah when, fleeing their native Vilna, the family was exiled by the Soviets to Siberia. Two years later, he carried his dead father on his shoulder in order to ensure he received a Jewish burial in the frozen tundra of Kavkazakhstan, and undertook the support of his mother and younger brother. Those early experiences no doubt contributed to his toughness. But they still do not explain him — in particular, they do not explain his sense of mission for ensuring the continued existence of the Jewish People.

Within five years of immigrating to the United States from the USSR, at the age of 17, he was well on his way to his first success in business and had begun to learn his way around Congress. The two actually went together. His first lobbying effort was an attempt to lower the excise tax on a product he sold. When his efforts bore fruit, he thought to himself, “Why should I do this for myself? I can do the same thing for the Jewish People.” Thus began a career as a one-man lobbying operation on behalf of the Jewish people.

Perhaps the one word that best describes him is “relentless.” When he fixed on a goal, whether in business or lobbying for the Jewish nation or giving tzedakah — or melding five different biological sets into one blended family — he was never impeded by obstacles. That was not in his lexicon.

Holy Chutzpah

Rav Aharon Kotler ztz”l, the Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood, was one of the first to appreciate the talents of the young man with the bright red hair. When asked how he first met Reb Aharon, Zev replied, “I heard he needed help. So I went to meet him.” Reb Aharon remained his hero and rebbi for the rest of his life. He revered Reb Aharon for his total dedication for the Jewish people without any trace of self-interest.

Some of Reb Aharon’s students resented the presence of the young businessman, with little yeshivah background, whom they viewed as possessing a surfeit of chutzpah. But Reb Aharon recognized that Zev’s chutzpah could be harnessed to the service of the Jewish People.

Zev Wolfson with President Johnson

The two shared a willingness to endure any humiliation for the sake of their fellow Jews. Reb Aharon famously said, “I would work with the pope if it would save the fingernail on the hand of a single Jewish child.” And one of Zev’s greatest strengths was that he did not know the meaning of the word embarrassment, and never let the possibility of humiliation interfere with his pursuit of the goal. On one of his early lobbying missions to Washington, the secretary of a senator to whom he wished to speak denied him entrance to the senator.

He turned to his friend Amos Bunim, who had accompanied him, and told him to distract the secretary. He then jumped over the partition and entered the senator’s office, risking arrest.

Saving Israel Millions

While still in his mid-20s, he played a major role in saving the funding for the nascent Chinuch Atzmai system in Israel. He convinced Senator Homer Capehart of Indiana to write a letter to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles extolling the virtues of Chinuch Atzmai. On a visit to Washington DC, Israel’s finance minister Levi Eshkol was flummoxed when leading members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee kept asking him about Chinuch Atzmai, which they could not come close to pronouncing. But he got the hint that Israel’s foreign aid requests would be viewed more favorably if the Israeli government took a more generous position toward Chinuch Atzmai.

When the economic history of the State of Israel is written, Zev Wolfson will be one of the three crucial figures in its first half century.

Although Levi Eshkol was left sputtering on that occasion, a series of Israeli finance ministers had much reason over the years to give thanks to the Almighty for Zev Wolfson. A senior finance ministry official once told me that when the economic history of the State of Israel is written, Zev Wolfson will be one of the three crucial figures in its first half century, after only David Ben-Gurion and Pinchas Sapir, the long-time finance minister (with whom Zev worked closely).

Working with leading figures in Congress, most prominently Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, he succeeded in having inserted into foreign aid appropriation bills, on several occasions, provisions altering the repayment terms on US governmental loans to Israel, or having the loans changed to grants. The resulting savings to Israel totaled billions of dollars.

In 1985, at a time of hyperinflation in Israel, Mr. Wolfson saved Israel hundreds of millions in interest payments by shepherding through Congress an appropriations bill that permitted Israel to refinance existing loans at much lower interest rates by prepaying the existing loans 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, Mr. 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 United States, Yitzchak Rabin, was eager to have language written into the foreign aid bill favoring the sale of Phantom jets to Israel. He turned to Zev to use his connections on Capitol Hill, and it was done. The two men became close friends. Zev was often on the phone with Prime Minister Rabin from the moment he landed in Israel and would stop at the latter’s Ramat Aviv apartment on his way back to the airport.

Under the Radar

During the first Gulf War, Zev invited Senator Inouye out on his boat, which he used almost exclusively for entertaining politicians or officials he felt it important to impress. He asked Senator Inouye if there was not anything in the American arsenal to protect Israel from the Iraqi Scud missiles. The senator told him about the Patriot missile batteries. If so, Zev asked, why hadn’t the United States supplied Israel with the Patriots?

Zev Wolfson with Israeli soldiers

Senator Inouye replied that Israel must not have sought them. Zev immediately got on the yacht’s phone and called then-defense minister Yitzchak 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 taken after a meeting between “US officials and Jewish leaders.”

The vast majority of these lobbying efforts were at Mr. Wolfson’s individual initiative, based on his keen understanding of where the levers of power in Congress lay — an understanding fostered, in part, by frequent reading of the Congressional Record.

If he had been the slightest bit interested in public recognition, his achievements would have come to a quick halt.

One point about his lobbying efforts must be emphasized. Had they not been conducted entirely under the radar, without any fanfare or publicity, they could never have been successful. If Mr. Wolfson had been the slightest bit interested in public recognition for his achievements, those achievements would have come to a quick halt.

While Mr. Wolfson hosted many fundraising 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 his influence in Congress to the fact that he never sought anything for himself.

And although Mr. Wolfson’s DC lobbying efforts took place under the radar, their impact was well known to senior officials in Jerusalem.

For approximately two decades, a special section of the annual defense allocations in the Israeli budget was known as Se’if Wolfson. The monies in that section were directed to projects determined by Mr. Wolfson.

He persuaded French president Jacques Chirac, for instance, to supply land for Otzar HaTorah schools, which primarily served immigrants from North Africa, and then paid for the building with monies from the Israeli government. Similarly, he obtained millions of dollars via the Israeli government for Jewish education in the FSU.

In the 1960s and ’70s, Mr. Wolfson obtained US government funding to build dozens of institutions in Israel, under a provision for schools and hospitals abroad from the USAID budget. Most of those institutions served children of Jewish refugees from Arab lands, a group extremely close to his heart. Once the schools and residential educational centers were built, he was often able to secure further funding from the Israeli government.

All these efforts to obtain government funding were the product of his early insight that governments can provide funding at a level far beyond that possible through private philanthropy.

By the ’90s, however, Mr. Wolfson found his ability to fund his projects via either the Israeli or American governments greatly circumscribed. In Israel, the era in which Pinchas Sapir ran the Israeli economy out of his coat pocket, without bureaucratic hindrance and with little transparency, had passed. And in the United States, politicians were under a much closer scrutiny — of which much stricter campaign finance laws are only one manifestation.

At that point, Mr. Wolfson began giving from his personal fortune on a scale perhaps unprecedented in Jewish history. He had his own goals clearly in mind, and was himself the initiator of many projects. The focus of his giving was overwhelmingly on Jewish outreach projects around the globe. He was constantly searching for people he viewed as capable of achieving great things and projects that would have a major impact. He was attracted by those who thought big, and often complained that there were not enough high-impact projects for the money he wanted to give.

God’s Money

He had no doubt where his wealth came from. Upon being introduced to Mr. Wolfson for the first time, the chairman of Merrill Lynch asked him how he had acquired his wealth. “God gave it to me,” Zev replied, without hesitation. He felt no need to expand.

He not only believed that God had given him his wealth, but that the money belonged to God, and was only entrusted to him as long as he used it for God’s purposes. In the midst of the most intense business negotiations, he almost never failed to take a call regarding one of his projects or from a family member. Into his 70s, he still flew economy class.

Just as he did not treat his money as his own with which to pamper himself, so he did not feel entitled to spare himself any humiliation in furthering his goals for the Jewish people. He thought nothing of sitting by the desk of the lowest functionary in the Israeli finance ministry to make sure that the transfer he sought was processed as expeditiously as possible, and then taking the papers on to the next bureaucrat up the chain. No amount of abuse could deter him in the pursuit of whatever goal he had trained his sights on.

Zev Wolfson at the Western Wall

He would not permit the money with which he had been blessed to become a source of honor. Where other large donors condition their gifts on having buildings named after them, Zev always insisted on the opposite condition — that his name not be linked to whatever cause he was supporting.

Yet if he viewed his wealth as a Divine trust, he also believed that God had entrusted it to him because He approved of his judgment in dispersing it. And he gave with that confidence. He did not just support the existing communal agenda, but in large measure determined it. He insisted on accountability in all his charitable projects, and empirical markers to determine progress. He made it clear to recipients that his goal was not to make their lives easier but to extract the maximum from people with the talent to make things happen.

That included preparing themselves for financial independence so he could start new projects.

He would use his vast array of connections to help individuals. When he heard, for instance, that a senior rabbi in Torah Umesorah had suffered partial facial paralysis on a trip to Brazil, he arranged within half an hour for him to meet two of New York City’s leading neurologists, both with six-month waiting lists, before office hours the next morning. He sent a limousine to bring the rabbi from Lakewood to the appointments, while he traveled by subway to meet at the first doctor’s office.

Yet he was unsentimental in his support of charitable projects and did not let friendship determine to whom he would give or at what level: he didn’t believe he had the right to let friendship cloud his judgment about where to give his money. If that impartiality led to some resentment, he did not let it bother him one whit.

No Time for Praise

Zev Wolfson was one of those rare figures of whom it can be said without fear of contradiction that he changed the course of history.

His greatest joy in his later years was to be surrounded by as many children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren as possible. On a typical Sunday afternoon, there would be up to 35 offspring in the house. The home was kept completely child-friendly, devoid of expensive furniture or easily breakable items.

His greatest source of pride was the knowledge that his lifetime work on behalf of the Jewish people will be continued by his family with a dedication that they learned from him. Two of the children are involved in frontline outreach work; one son is an internationally renowned explicator of the Written Torah; his sons have taken over the direction of Keren Wolfson; his beloved wife, Nechama, directs her own multiple educational projects in both America and Israel, and each one of the children is actively involved in multiple chesed projects.

A longer version of this article originally appeared in Mishpacha Magazine.

Photos: Family Archives, Shuvu Archives, Wolfson Foundation, Meir Haltovsky

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