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Zev Wolfon’s Best-Kept Secret

Yonoson Rosenblum

He was called the greatest askan that ever lived, had an open door in Congress and in the Knesset deal rooms, and gave away millions upon millions of his own funds for projects that would ensure the Jewish identity of the next generation. But he made sure never to be in the headlines, and none of the hundreds of institutions he supported have his name on the buildings. What was Zev Wolfson’s intense drive all about?

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

zev wolfsonEvery human being is unique, but most at least fall into certain broad categories and possess traits that are similar to others. Zev Wolfson a”h, 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.

At the age of 11, he fled his native Vilna, together with his family, into theUSSR. Two years later, he carried his dead father on his shoulder to bury him 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 theUnited Statesfrom theUSSR, 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 Klal Yisrael.

Perhaps the one word that best describes him is “relentless.” When he fixed on a goal, whether in business or lobbying for the klal 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 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 mesirus nefesh for Klal Yisrael without any trace of self-interest.

Some of Reb Aharon’s talmidim 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.

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 bushah (embarrassment), and never let the possibility of humiliation interfere with his pursuit of the goal. On one of his early lobbying missions toWashington, 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.

When Zev traveled to Eretz Yisrael in the 1950s, Reb Aharon sent him with letters of introduction to the Brisker Rav and Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin, in which he described Zev’s ability to achieve results others had thought impossible. Rabbi Yaakov Weisberg asked Reb Aharon whether it would be appropriate to send bochurim fromLakewood to greet Mr. Wolfson on his return. Reb Aharon answered affirmatively.


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