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Forgotten Benefactor

Dov Bin Nun

His palaces were among the most magnificent in all of Europe, and kings and noblemen were his steady guests. But he, the wealthiest man in Germany, preferred to bestow his fortune on the yeshivos, talmidei chachamim, and impoverished souls of the generation. A century ago, everyone knew his name, but today, does anyone remember Baron Shimon Wolf Rothschild?

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Frankfurt of the mid-1800s was a bastion of Reform practice and theology, but that didn’t stop the Orthodox synagogue on Frankfurt’s Buckenheimer Landstrasse 10 — located in one of the famed Rothschild palaces — from having a minyan every day, even if Baron Wilhelm Carl (Shimon Binyamin Zev Wolf ben Kalman) Von Rothschild had to pay the men to come. Baron Shimon Wolf Rothschild, the wealthiest man in Germany at the time, could have spent his fortune on any of the world’s many delights. While kings and noblemen dined at his table, when he ate alone, breakfast consisted of a roll and coffee. He could have squandered his vast resources on the passing pleasures of the world, but — unlike the other family members and barons who shared his illustrious name — he preferred to invest in tzedakah, in support of Torah and its scholars, and in everything else that keeps the Jewish world afloat. But ask around today and most people would scratch their heads, trying to place this all-but-forgotten baron, who was crowned with the titles tzaddik yesod olam, hasar hatzaddik, and kevod kedushas sheim tifarto by the gedolei hador of prewar Europe. Baron Willy, as he was known, left no male heirs and the Frankfurt branch of the House of Rothschild ended with his passing in 1901. Yet by combing through surviving 19th-century archives and digging through stacks of old documents, communal Yizkor books, and memorial pamphlets, we were able to form a picture of this largely forgotten, enormous baal chesed who supported the impoverished Jews his of own region, of Eastern Europe, and of Eretz Yisrael. Despite the winds of Emancipation and Enlightenment that swept through Germany and Western Europe at the time, the baron remained a pillar of halachic stricture and Torah scholarship, an anomaly in his upper-crust circles. And he wasn’t even raised in a religious home. In fact, he became a baal teshuvah when he was just a child.

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