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A TRIBUTE TO MR. ZEV WOLFSON

Yedidya Meir

1. One of the most embarrassing things in the world is having to flatter the rich. It's twice as embarrassing when one finds himself in a situation where he has to speak to a very wealthy gvir from the podium of a fancy dinner, or have a personal conversation with him in a hotel lobby, and effusively praise him for his work, righteousness and modesty while dancing and prancing around him. It's embarrassing to the flattered rich, and it's embarrassing to the flattering poor. Neither of them feel good in this situation. And sometimes the poor man is a prominent Jew, a rosh yeshiva, or a director of an institution, who is doing something really important, while the rich man is an unimportant Jew, and then it's really appalling.

I want to dedicate my column this week, the first column of Elul, to relating in detail the work and righteousness and modesty of one particular mogul for two main reasons: first, because in this case it's not cheap, exaggerated flattery. It is almost impossible to exaggerate the virtues of this rich man. And second, because he is no longer with us. Reb Zev Wolfson, a real estate mogul and founder of Ness Technologies, died last week at age 84, leaving behind him countless acts of charity and kindness and thousands of institutions and projects that he had contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to, none of which bears the name of their unknown benefactor.

2. I first met Wolfson a little under ten years ago. He was already then elderly and unhealthy, but he still brimmed with ideas and new ventures to bring Jews back to Judaism. That was his real obsession. He was not the kind of donor who signs a check and only comes to the dedication ceremony (in fact, he didn't even come to ceremonies because he felt they were a waste of time) but was involved in every project from its inception down to the nitty-gritty details. He personally accompanied each of his spiritual start - ups throughout the Jewish world.

I once heard President Peres speak enthusiastically about Mr. Wolfson's invisible and quiet contributions to the State in the areas of economics, industry and defense. Maybe one day these things will get the publicity that they deserve. But I'm talking about the involvements that are well known: in the fifties, when the immigrants arrived from Yemen and Morocco, he set up schools for them; in the seventies and eighties, he was active on behalf of Jews who had arrived from the Soviet Union, and in the last decade, he redoubled his activities in an attempt to solve the biggest problem of all: how to reconnect the generation growing up in Israel who were devoid of any connection to Judaism.

To him, the goal justified the means. He did not limit himself to one sector or another. Whoever worked for Jewish education in Israel and abroad, received a generous budget: Garinim Toranim (dati Torah-oriented programs), El Hama'ayan, the Tzohar movement of Belz, the Chevron Yeshiva, Kemach Fund to aid chareidi employment, Ohr Torah Stone in Efrat, Arachim, Hidabroot, Rabbi Grossman's institutions, the MiBreishit movement, the Israeli Journey Program.

As part of his philanthropic spree, when he visited the country he scheduled many meetings at the same hour. For example, in the same minutes that I met him, he strode briskly from one corner of his suite on the 14th floor of the Plaza Hotel in Jerusalem to another. It was amazing. People were waiting for him at every corner: at the dinner table, on couches, in the kitchen. He simply alternated between them, hearing ideas, and throwing out suggestions and numbers. Until one interlocutor thought of an answer, he had already held another two meetings on the porch. (I remember telling him that I hope that no director of an education network is waiting for him in the bathroom, and his breathless assistants told me in all seriousness that it had happened before.)

So what was I doing there? Hey, I have no association. Actually, I was sorry that night that I didn't. Because I saw with my own eyes how anyone who came in with an organization as hungry as a dog, left fully satisfied. The reason I was there was because I was invited to meet the man as part of a new initiative to teach Judaism to secular Tel Aviv youths. Wolfson, who insisted on being personally involved in all his projects, asked to personally meet and get to know some of this generation's representatives, and one of his assistants brought me into the picture. 

Among others, I introduced him to writer Nir Baram and journalist Lior Dayan. (Both of them had an impressive Mapainik "lineage" which spoke to him: one was the son of former Minister of Internal Affairs Uzi Baram and grandson of former Minister of Labour Moshe Baram; the second was the son of film director Assi Dayan and grandson of former Defense Minister Moshe Dayan). He set aside a lot of time to talk with them until late into the night, despite the conversation having nothing to do directly with budgets or management. This week I asked them to remember what was discussed at the meeting and both of them answered me in almost the same words: "He was sitting on the couch in the hotel and really looked troubled. He said again and again: 'We must find a point of connection between Israeli youngsters and Judaism. Any idea how to do it?'"

3. That meeting occurred, as I mentioned, nearly a decade ago. Since then, Wolfson had not stopped looking for ways to connect Israeli youth, even the most alienated and Ashkenazi, to Jewish Studies. Wolfson was careful not to mention the classic "returning to Judaism", and instead talked about Jewish identity and fighting ignorance and alienation. Sometimes, though -- what can one do -- the light in Torah sometimes brought Israeli youths back to Jewish observance. Here's an example: Six months ago, a young woman called Karen Svistov wrote on her wall in Facebook a long, heartfelt self confession. Svistov, who was a planner at McCann Erickson's advertising firm, studied in one of Wolfson's Tel Aviv centers. After participating in PR campaigns for companies like Osem, Clal Insurance, Tadiran and El Al, she decided to launch a different campaign:

"Monday, February 13, 2012, 02:41. It's time to write a little bit about my tshuva. So many worrisome emails and people gingerly talking with me: Why are you keeping your distance? You're freaking out! What, you, such an intelligent girl?! Maybe because you haven't found your man? Maybe because your father died of cancer? Alright, the main thing is that you feel good about it... Just watch out that you don't become one of those fanatics. What, now you're also talking about giving up everything to attend a midrasha in Jerusalem… ?!

"So let me explain to you and myself: I'm already learning for three and a half years. I'm touching the truth, understanding it yet denying it, getting close to it yet fleeing from it. I don't want the light to close me in. I don't want to have to change or understand that I am living a lie or just wasted years on nothing.

"I'm afraid of losing my empty husks of lust and pride. But the soul demands its own and keeps bringing me back to these classes on Judaism. Once a week, for four and a half hours, a new reality. My heart is surging, my pulse is quickening, and the Torah enters a little more into this vast place where it belongs.

"I don't know enough words to explain why. The infinite sensations, thoughts, trials, challenges and major battles every second are overwhelming. How does one explain G-d, with all His names, facets and revelations impacting my finite existence? He is close and invisible, a father, a beloved, a kind of energy, a point of light, a dull pain in the chest, a figure without a body, an intangible presence, a terrible fear, a great joy, a tremendous longing, a fulfilling emotion, the ultimate good, the comforter and listener.

"Where to begin? Sometimes I try to explain that my return to Judaism was rational and logical, instead of spiritual. I can't deny that my mind, which was educated to get university degrees, takes pride in my clarity of thought, ability to express myself, analysis and memory. So I explain how illogical it is to assume that a purposeless world could be so full of purpose. Then I add the fact that man is the only creature that can harm himself, which allows him freedom of choice, and continue on with the amazing relationship between Torah and science as seen in the brilliant Bible codes in the Holy language, our miraculous history, its wisdom and its depth, the solutions that Judaism gives to every aspect of human life, the accurate and dedicated transmission from generation to generation, ending with the greatest question of all - why are we here, both as individuals, and as members of the Jewish people? How can we fulfill our purpose and the supreme commandment of  "Love your neighbor as yourself"? Someone responded to the lovely, rational argument I had constructed by telling me that this description is the kind given by someone who is embarrassed about his return to Judaism.

"I am embarrassed? Hey, I talk about Judaism at every opportunity with anyone who will just listen. I gave up all my previous clothes (the non-modest clothes, as well as my cloak of sarcasm). I want to found with G-d's help a Jewish home based on Torah and purity.

"Every morning I thank You for returning my soul to me, with compassion and showing great faith -- in me. Because You believe that today I will scrape some more husks away and will return to myself and to You.

"I carefully stride to the sink, holding my pink washing cup from Mea Shearim. Right, left, Right, left, right, left, right. Try to recite the blessing while concentrating on its meaning. A pure soul, a spark from Above, a complete and real image of God dwelling in a coarse body that is only now awakening.

"A blessed morning begins, another day without a clear routine. With external battles against the secular environment and an internal war which is the hardest battle of all. To discover the sparks. I pray to be friendly and happy, to deal kindly with others, to bring blessings to those close and far. 

"How does one nurture a daughter of the King when my core still cries out for material desires? Pride, beauty, shopping, money, prestige, control. The yetzer hara is leading me on such an enjoyable and comfortable path. Sometimes I come down with Tel - Avivitis. The sins that I thought I had eradicated, return and powerfully bubble over in me. Good Lord, what a long way it is to You! A new day begins in which there is another chance to repent."

Until here her words. I read this text six months ago, and I held onto them to publish them at the beginning of the month of Elul. What is more appropriate to these days of mercy and forgiveness than the fresh emotions of a new baal tshuva from the year that is just now ending?

4. But that's not the end of the story. Zev Wolfson died in the U.S. on Monday morning. Many institution directors traveled from Israel to attend the levaya, and whoever didn't make it, came to comfort Reb Zev's sons during the shivah. Rabbi Moshe Shapira, who is known to carefully choose his words and avoids exaggeration, opened his hesped, "We are at the shloshim of the passing of our generation's pillar of Torah, Rav Elyashiv. And now, Hakodesh Baruch Hu took from us our generation's pillar of chesed."

In the week after the funeral, hundreds of mourning announcements were published by the institutions that the deceased was involved in their founding and flourishing. In the picture I am attaching, you can see two of the ads printed in Yated Ne'eman.

But wait! Besides printing obituaries, the Yated Neeman also prints engagement notices on its front page. And as I was gazing at one of them the morning after R' Zev Wolfson's passing, a friend called me. "Look at the bride's name on the announcement at the top left. Yes, yes, it's that same Tel Aviv advertising planner who six months ago wrote about her first steps in Judaism after learning in one of Wolfson's centers."

While her article is gathering dust in my "Keep for Elul" folder on my computer, it turns out that she is already a student in the Netiv Bina midrasha in Jerusalem, and is about to build that authentic Jewish home that she wrote about, with a young man studying in Rabbi Mordechai Auerbach's Halichos Shlomo yeshiva (named after his father, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach) in Tel Aviv. Karen and Daniel, two Israelis who, without the obsessiveness of the philanthropist who passed away this week in Queens, would be in such very different places. Baruch Dayan Ha'Emes. And mazel tov.

And so, on that very same evening, dozens of institutions and organizations called the newspaper in Bnei Brak, and dictated mourning ads with superlative descriptions about "that great and precious man." But one little engagement announcement from Tel Aviv, with just two names and without any titles, of two young people who it is doubtful if they ever heard of Zev Wolfson, summed up more than the other praises what his life was all about.

That's exactly how he liked his endeavors for Judaism - simple, real, and without bearing his name.

For responses: yedidyam@netvision.net.il

published in BeSheva newspaper

©Yedidya Meir
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