Thirty Days Since His Passing: Mr. Zev Wolfson Z”L, His Story, Ideals and What Made Him Great


[By Andrew Wohlberg – As it appeared In The Jewish Home]

The term philanthropist does not exactly describe Mr. Zev Wolfson. He did much more than write checks. He championed the cause of Jews, Judaism and a Jewish way of life everywhere he could. He was at least as much an activist as he was a philanthropist. Rather than sit on organizational boards, he was in the trenches; he personally did what it took to make things happen. He built Jewish educational and vocational infrastructure where none existed; he envisioned and put into place kiruv efforts on a massive scale; and he helped enhance relations—diplomatic and military— between Israel and the United States.


Ultimately, his efforts affected hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Jewish souls, spiritually and physically. Today, even after his death, his efforts continue through the work of his wife and children and a network of Jewish outreach specialists around the world. He envisioned this all, created it, funded it, and directed it.

He did all this quietly – shunning any recognition whatsoever for his efforts. He insisted on anonymity. He absolutely refused to allow any building, room, or program to bear his name. Dinners to honor him were simply out of the question. His story is perhaps one of the best-kept secrets in the Jewish world. In the last few weeks, since his passing, more and more people have come forward to share their personal stories with the public—and newspapers and magazines have begun to piece together his mammoth accomplishments. It was not a story that could have been published while he was alive.

Though he sometimes appeared to those who knew him as a superman capable of achieving remarkable things, he would bristle at the insinuation that he was somehow special. “Anyone could do what I do,” he would always insist. “I just went and did it.” As we commemorate the thirty-day anniversary of his petirah, here is a peek into the life of a man who packed so many lifetimes into one, a man who so profoundly and positively impacted the world in which we all live.

From Vilna to Siberia

Zev Wolfson, who changed his name as a young adult after coming to America, was born in Vilna on March 16, 1928. His parents, Abraham and Rachel Wolfowski, named him Wolf. A defining memory of his early childhood was how secularized Vilna Judaism was. He attended a Jewish day school where other students teased him—calling him “Wula, Wula!”—because of how he publicly and proudly displayed his Judaism. He said he was born with an innate feel and pull toward Yiddishkeit.

But young Wolf would soon have bigger concerns than the teasing. In 1941, with World War II underway, for no apparent reason Wolf and his family were deported in the middle of the night as “undesirables” by the Russians. He, his brother and parents all boarded a train, leaving behind a 6-month-old sibling with neighbors with whom they expected to soon be reunited. They were being sent, not to Nazi death camps or concentration camps, but to Siberia.

It took only a little more than a week for the Wolfowskis to learn how their seeming misfortune had likely saved their lives. Russian troops onboard the train told them that the Germans had occupied Vilna and that there were terrible stories of atrocities. Had the Wolfowskis not been deported, their fate, at best, would have been uncertain. They never again saw the child they left behind.

“The reason that we are alive today is because the Russians deported us for no known reason, which saved us from Hitler, who seven days later came into Vilna,” Mr. Wolfson once said. “This was all mamesh a neis. Had we tried to flee after they told us we were going to be deported, we would have been trapped in Vilna. You really can see G-d’s hand at work here.”

Orphaned So Young

In Siberia, the family lived on a “collective farm” with mud roads and no modern plumbing. All food was rationed, but there was never enough. A few months later, after their arrival in Siberia, the family was allowed to travel to Jambul, Khazakstan, where conditions were believed to be better.

In Jambul, they lived in a one-room hut of dried mud and manure. Oftentimes, they shared the hut with two other families. Food was scarce. Bread was a specialty. They often ate grass.

While in Jambul, Abraham Wolfwoski became increasingly sick and weak. Young Wolf was forced to become the head of the household and provide for the family. To earn money, he bought and sold wheat, worked odd jobs at a factory and a grain elevator, and farmed a small plot of land for potatoes, corn and tomatoes. Young Wolf once bargained with a local for a cartload of miniature potatoes which sustained the family for an entire winter. It was in Jambul that tragedy struck and Abraham Wolfwoski died. Wolf scraped together enough money to buy a coffin and buried his father in the midst of a blizzard.

The End of the War

Soon after the war ended in 1945, Wolf led his family out of Jambul and back across war-devastated Eastern Europe.

Mr. Wolfson described the night men smuggled him and his family across the Polish-German border into Germany. The family had just traveled back through Eastern Europe. Now, jammed with dozens of other in the back of a Studebaker truck, the family faced freedom or the prospect of being turned back.

For five hours they traveled, standing, packed like sardines as they drove through the night. At the border, Mr. Wolfson knew that there was a chance that the guard could prevent them from going through and then what? He peeked out and saw the driver hand the guard money, who then waved them through to freedom.

It is moments like these that helped shape his fearlessness. When you experience this type of life-or-death fear, being thrown out of a congressman’s office doesn’t seem to be all that scary. You’re still going to eat dinner, anyway.

Mr. Wolfson’s ultimate goal was to get his family the necessary papers to gain passage to either Palestine or America. Equal efforts were made to get papers for both countries, but in the end, the attempts at coming to America succeeded. In May 1947, they sailed to America and arrived at Manhattans’ West Side piers with a few possessions, including about $70 and a few gold coins his mother had smuggled out when fleeing Vilna. Until they got situated, they stayed with a relative living in New York. Mr. Wolfson was 16.

Starting Anew in America

Within a few months of being in America, young Zev went from someone in need of the Jewish community’s help to someone providing it. Saving Jewish lives, establishing relations between America and Israel, and planting seeds of Torah learning across the Jewish world were the things that drove Mr. Wolfson’s thoughts and actions. They were his passion, his mission, his singular focus. “I believe the Jewish people are something special, and my objective is to see that there are more Jews in the world,” Mr. Wolfson once said. “If I have an opportunity, which I have been given by G-d, I should make use of it. I must do whatever I can and continuously search for ways to do more.”

While Mr. Wolfson began his efforts to help Jewish causes, he also began building a successful business. Upon his arrival in America, he worked in his uncle’s small electronics shop. Months later, he opened his own retail shop before moving into wholesale sales, which seemed to have greater financial potential. He became a distributor for refurbished TV tubes and became so successful that sales expanded as far away as Brazil. Even so, Mr. Wolfson continued to look for bigger opportunities. At the time, he was 22.

This focus and commitment were crucial ingredients in both Mr. Wolfson’s success and ability to achieve so much. Many of his crucial, important successes came even before he became a man of means or someone who was well-known. Two incidents that required government involvement soon after he emigrated illustrate this point.

The first was in 1948 when he went into business selling electronics. He discovered an excise tax that was unfairly cutting into his profits and brought his complaint to a local IRS office. The administrator said there was nothing he could do, that D.C. was the place to take his grievance. So he did. There Mr. Wolfson was told that nothing could be done without changing the federal law. “So being young and inexperienced,” Mr. Wolfson recalled, “I said, ‘Alright, I’ll try and change the law.’” Unannounced, he went to Capitol Hill to lobby for the law change. He visited senators and representatives and presented them with his case. He was amazed that not only wasn’t he thrown out, but he actually succeeded in getting the law revised.

The other incident occurred during Israel’s War of Independence, when the U.S. government suspended postal service to Israel for safety reasons. In the days before faxes and easy-to-make overseas phone calls, the move essentially cut ties with the Holy Land, where he and his uncle had business customers. Mr. Wolfson learned that the Dutch airline, KLM, was still flying to Palestine. He approached a representative of the company and asked if personal mail could be sent as cargo. With approval of KLM and the U.S. Air Transport Department, Mr. Wolfson helped re-establish a mail link. This arrangement earned Mr. Wolfson a call of appreciation from officials at the Jewish Agency, who had never even heard of him.

Both of those examples taught Mr. Wolfson that he had the ability to get important things done with government assistance. It was then that he thought to himself that if he could do these things to help himself, perhaps he could also do similar things to help the Jewish people.

He realized that he could leverage Washington, D.C. as a potential ally for many Jewish causes and began cultivating relationships, particularly on Capitol Hill. He was strategic in his approach, identifying the key committees that have oversight over the matters in which he was interested, particularly foreign affairs. And then he identified the key decision makers. Ultimately, Mr. Wolfson understood exactly how things in Washington worked and how to get things done.

A Provider of Life for Klal Yisroel

It was the mid-1950s, and the great leader of the Torah world, Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l, had a serious crisis in his hands: the Chinuch Atzmai school system in Israel was facing financial collapse.

The stakes were high. The loss of the school network would have a devastating effect on Torah and Yiddishkeit in Eretz Yisrael. At the time, there were no philanthropists to whom Rav Aharon or other leaders of Chinuch Atzmai could turn. Nor was the Israeli government offering to step in. Without a financial injection, the schools would have to close.

Enter Zev Wolfson – at that time, still known as Wolf Wolfowski. How would this young man in his twenties come up with the exorbitant amount of money needed to save Chinuch Atzmai? He had a plan.

To someone with ordinary sensibilities, Zev’s plan would have seemed delusional, but Zev didn’t have ordinary sensibilities. To him, this plan was practical.

Over the next several years, to Rav Aharon Kotler’s amazement, Zev managed to put the successes of the Chinuch Atzmai school system on the radar of some prominent members of Congress. These legislators, in turn, emphasized the importance of the school network in their discussions with Israeli officials. Influential Israeli members of the Knesset began to see the priority the American government paid to these educational institutions –and in the end, the Israeli government stepped forward to support the ailing schools. Through young Zev’s creative leveraging efforts, remarkably, the U.S. government became the savior of Chinuch Atzmai.

It is no wonder that Rav Aharon Kotler saw Zev Wolfson as a shaliach from Hashem to help perpetuate the spread of Torah and Yiddishkeit around the globe.

“Know that all the great help in the last years that arrived to salvage the situation originated from him,” Rav Aharon wrote in Hebrew to Rav Zalman Sorotzkin in Israel of Mr. Wolfson’s efforts to save the school system. “Both with regard to the plan and to its implementation, what was done in Washington and in the Israeli government was through him. His suggestions seemed farfetched in my eyes, but I did not ignore them because I know that the perpetuation of the Torah depends on miracles. His plans came to complete fruition.” Rav Aharon went on to write of Mr. Wolfson, quoting what the Torah itself says of Yosef HaTzadik, “G-d has sent him to provide sustenance.”

The Hebrew word that Rav Aharon used for “to provide sustenance” is “l’michyeh.” It is the same word first spoken by Yosef in the Torah when he absolved his brothers of their guilt for selling him into slavery. Yosef told them that it was G-d acting through them to send him to Egypt where he would be positioned to sustain their lives (and ultimately the lives of the Jewish people) during a severe famine. Rav Aharon intentionally used this term to describe Mr. Wolfson in the letter to Rav Sorotzkin. “G-d has sent him as a sustainer of life and to ensure [Chinuch Atzmai’s] continued existence,” he wrote.

Although Rav Aharon Kotler only observed the first few chapters—albeit important ones—of Mr. Wolfson’s work on behalf of Klal Yisroel, he saw sixty years ago that Zev Wolfson would singlehandedly impact Klal Yisroel and “provide sustenance” to Klal Yisroel for years to come.

Spearheading the U.S.-Israeli Alliance

Mr. Wolfson’s early success at securing funding for schools in Israel highlighted not only his determination and relentlessness, but also his brilliant tactical abilities. After his success at obtaining funding for Chinuch Atzmai, Mr. Wolfson turned his attention to the educational and vocational needs of Sephardic Jews in Israel. At that time, the Sephardic Jews were a minority and were considered underprivileged. Mr. Wolfson was concerned for their material and spiritual needs and wanted to make sure that their children received a good Torah’dik education.

In order to obtain funding for the Sephardic schools, Mr. Wolfson cleverly “pitched” U.S. congressmen that funding Jewish schools for these children in Israel would promote western values of freedom and democracy. He showed the politicians how they were not only doing him a favor, but it was in their best interest to fund these schools. One U.S. senator who took up the cause ultimately enlisted the support of President John F. Kennedy.

Eventually, the senator suggested a fundraising luncheon in the Senate dining room, followed by a meeting with the President. It marked the first kosher lunch inside the U.S. Senate dining room under supervision of the local Vaad Hakashrus. Attendees were a mix of Jewish communal leaders, businessmen and politicians. At the end of the event, a massive amount of money for that time was raised.

What came as a direct result of that luncheon was perhaps even more important—the forming of one of the earliest political ties between Israel and America. Following the luncheon, Mr. Wolfson arranged for a delegation of attendees to travel to Israel to dedicate the first school established with funds raised at the luncheon.

Attending that luncheon at the invitation of Mr. Wolfson’s political connection was another U.S. senator, one of the most powerful politicians of the time with significant say in federal spending. For the Israel trip, Mr. Wolfson invited both senators who agreed to come. In that instant, the trip turned into a serious diplomatic achievement…without the help of anyone in Israel or the Israeli embassy.

This was a time well before such delegations were common. For five days, these two senators, along with Mr. Wolfson, toured important national sites in Israel by day and were picked up by limousine to dine with Israeli cabinet members at night. At the time, Mr. Wolfson came to an important conclusion: “I realized that with a little influence, I could do great things for the State of Israel.”

Helping Israel’s National Security Needs

Over the years, as Mr. Wolfson’s connections in the U.S. government deepened, he also had the opportunity to help Israel at a national security level. One of the earliest occasions occurred during the Yom Kippur War in October 1973. A few days after the simultaneous attack by several Arab armies on Israel began, the Soviet Union started a massive military supply to the Arab armies. In response, U.S. President Richard Nixon decided to send more than $2 billion in military equipment to Israel.

Doing so, however, required congressional approval. The key figure to approving that expenditure request happened to be a good friend of Mr. Wolfson’s who had helped Mr. Wolfson in the past. An Israeli government minister personally asked Mr. Wolfson to visit with his congressional contact to urge approval of the multi-billion funding.

A couple of days later, Mr. Wolfson came to Washington to meet his congressional contact. But no matter what he said, Mr. Wolfson could not sway the congressman’s mind from cutting $500 million from the request. A week later, Mr. Wolfson returned to try one more time. He recalled his flight from New York to D.C. during a serious storm as one of the worst he’d ever been through. He met the congressman at a local restaurant, and this time succeeded in having the $500 million put back in.

One remarkable aspect of this—and other stories—was the fact that he was able to persuade so many politicians to help him help Israel, even though they had no real benefit or gain from it. They were rarely from New York, so he couldn’t even vote for them. Some speculate that the primary reason was that as much access as Mr. Wolfson had to some of the most powerful political figures in America, Israel and France, he never asked for anything for himself. Anytime he requested anything from them, it was on behalf of some Jewish cause.

Combined with his fearlessness, Mr. Wolfson was also focused like a laser on helping Jews across the world. Well before there was an AIPAC helping to create and solidify relations between Israel and the United States, well before American Jewry rallied to the cause of Soviet Jewry, and well before there were enough benefactors and philanthropists to support Jewish education across the world, Mr. Wolfson was doing all of these things and more.

Fearless and Persistent

One trait in particular—and perhaps the trait that most defined him and contributed to his achievements—was his fearlessness.

Everything and anything Mr. Wolfson did, he did with total fearlessness—whether trying to persuade a politician somewhere in the world to do something to help the Jewish people or to gain access to a hard-to-enter investment. He had absolutely no fear of rejection, which is one of the biggest blocks preventing people from achieving their true potential. This allowed him to seek anyone out and ask for anything, even if it seemed totally outrageous. If you want something that someone can help you get, but you don’t even try or ask, Mr. Wolfson believed, then it’s automatically a “no.” At least if you ask, you might get a “yes,” even if the request seems preposterous.

Well before Mr. Wolfson became wealthy, and well before anyone even knew who Zev Wolfson was, he used to travel to Washington D.C. to literally knock, uninvited and unannounced, on the doors of congressmen who he had identified as being critical decision makers who could help Israel.

Mr. Wolfson never feared rejection. He was never afraid that they would simply dismiss him or throw him out, thinking he was a “greenhorn.” His lack of fear likely came from his childhood experience, when he faced on a daily basis real reasons to be afraid for his life, for his mother’s life and his brother’s life; to be afraid that there would be no food to eat and they would starve; or that they would be killed by any number of people or factors.

Many of us fear not being popular, not being liked. In this regard, Mr. Wolfson was also fearless. For those who knew him well, he was a man with a tough exterior with a warm, caring core. For those who didn’t know him well, he was just a man with a tough exterior—gruff, demanding and with little time to waste on pleasantries. If he needed something, he went straight to the point with no bother of pleases and thank yous. Mr. Wolfson rarely, if ever, ended a phone conversation – at least with me – with a “good bye.” The phone simply went dead when he had finished talking or listening to everything he needed. He didn’t wring his hands wondering what people thought of him. His focus was on getting important things done.

A Strategy of Humility

Mr. Wolfson had no ego when it came to doing things for the Jews. There were occasions when Mr. Wolfson had dealings with Israeli political leaders who, for various reasons, resented his efforts. Some were even rude and hostile toward him. But he never held a grudge against them nor ruled them out as someone who could potentially help him in his efforts. He was not one to hold a personal vendetta.

Mr. Wolfson was focused on aiding his Jewish brothers and sisters and not himself. That he did everything quietly, without seeking attention or honor, is almost a cliché when discussing Mr. Wolfson. Everyone who knew him, knows that about him. But it wasn’t an affected kind of humility, a kind of modesty that was merely skin deep. He wasn’t the type to say he didn’t want kavod – but then accept it “begrudgingly,” as all sorts of events, programs and yeshivas would carry his name. He really didn’t want the kavod— and was quite adamant about keeping his name out of the spotlight. He abhorred congratulatory flattery with a special kind of ferocity.

Where did his modesty come from? It was part nature, and part strategy. On the one hand, he truly believed that his business successes and accomplishments were to be attributed to G-d and not to his own prowess. But his desire for secrecy and anonymity was also a strategy. Mr. Wolfson believed that the more public his efforts became, the more people would rise to set obstacles in his way. Had he believed that being a celebrity would have aided his Jewish activist efforts, his name would likely have been as well-known as Baron Rothschild’s.

Thinking “Big”

An attraction to “big” is yet another defining characteristic of Mr. Wolfon’s efforts—both in business and Jewish activism. When it came to business, for example, he was known to say that he preferred big deals to small ones because big deals ultimately took the same amount of time and effort as small ones to get done. From retail and wholesale, Mr. Wolfson moved into real estate, buying commercial properties in the southern tip of Manhattan. Eventually, he would demolish those properties and build his biggest, and what he considered his most important business success, 1 State Street Plaza.

Beyond real estate, Mr. Wolfson began to invest in the financial markets. He was known for identifying the best and brightest investors and investing with them. In fact, Mr. Wolfson had a reputation of pressing and pressuring exclusive investment managers to get into their funds, refusing to take no for an answer.

Mr. Wolfson took the same approach with his outreach efforts. He looked for where he could—given limited time and money—make the biggest impact. He always sought the help of governments and other philanthropists because he realized that no matter how successful he became, the needs of the global Jewish community would always be bigger than any one person. Partnering for funds and political influence would be essential.

In addition to supporting Jewish causes in Israel, Mr. Wolfson supported nearly two hundred Jewish education or outreach programs in the United States, spanning thirty different states and scores of cities. He also heavily supported Jewish education networks in Canada, France, the Former Soviet Union, Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Germany.

Helping Russian Jewry

Mr. Wolfson first began his efforts in Russia in 1959, when, Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev made his first visit to the United States. Mr. Wolfson arranged a meeting with an important U.S. representative who was involved in the Khrushchev’s visit. The representative actually raised the issue of Soviet Jewry with the premier. Nothing came of it. But decades later, as soon as the Iron Curtain came down, Mr. Wolfson was on the ground in Moscow looking to create, from scratch, a Jewish educational infrastructure.

In fact, in the early 1990s, Mr. Wolfson drafted a letter that was sent to the President of the United States by powerful contacts in the U.S. Congress. The letter explained how after decades of Communism, Soviet government approval would be required to open a Jewish school. The letter made its way to the President of the United States and the British Prime Minister who said she would raise the issue with the Soviet Premier at their upcoming meeting. Soon after this letter was circulated, Mr. Wolfson, along with several U.S. Senators, visited Russian political leaders to discuss funding and building Jewish schools.

Outreach in France

Another Jewish community that had attracted Mr. Wolfson was France. By the mid-1980s, one in every 20 Jews, mostly from North African countries, lived in France. Mr. Wolfson first got involved there in the early 1970s when he secured U.S. funding for a Jewish school.

As France’s Jewish population grew, Mr. Wolfson deepened his work there, befriending many of the country’s most powerful political leaders, including then-President Jacques Chirac. On his frequent trips to Paris, he developed an affinity for one of his few worldly pleasures – fine French neckties. In partnership with Chirac, Mr. Wolfson was able to provide funding from the French government for the Otzar HaTorah network of schools, run by Rabbi Jean Paul Amouyelle. By the early 2000s, Mr. Wolfson had helped obtain land parcels and tens of millions of dollars from the French government for the growing demand for Jewish schools in the country. He also managed to convince Israel to match portions of the French gifts.

As Shimon Peres recently said, Mr. Wolfson was responsible for bringing home to Israeli lawmakers the importance of education in the Diaspora. As Peres put it, Wolfson’s argument was that Israel needed to invest in the past for the sake of its own future: The future of Israel, Wolfson argued, was bound up in educating Jews worldwide and bringing them closer to their Jewishness. Only if Jews were passionate about being Jewish would they be counted on to stand by Israel’s side when the chips were down.

Building an Empire of Outreach…And Demanding Results

Nowhere had Mr. Wolfson’s involvement been greater than in Israel itself. Throughout the fifties and sixties, Mr. Wolfson oversaw all of his projects in Israel himself. But in the early 1970s, he hired a rabbi to represent him and oversee his extensive programs and projects.

The center of Mr. Wolfson’s efforts in Israel is a small Jerusalem office known as Tikvat Acheinu. Mr. Wolfson operated it much like a venture capitalist. As times changed, so did the demands – from Sephardic immigrants in the 1950s to Russian immigrants in the 1990s to native-born secular soldiers and to professionals from Tel Aviv’s upper middle class. Wherever the need was, Mr. Wolfson tried to be there with compelling, innovative programs.

In the latter years, as his efforts increased, so did his need for people to run his programs. Mr. Wolfson looked for people firmly rooted in a traditional Jewish lifestyle who could also appeal and “talk the language” of those who didn’t.

Oftentimes, Mr. Wolfson was fortunate to have people come to pitch their ideas for Jewish outreach. If the programs met his requirements and fit within his vision, he would typically supply a third to half of the operating budget, much of it with funds he received from government sources. Mr. Wolfson expected the directors to raise the remaining funds from other sources. Once a program was running, there was continuous monitoring of progress and results.

Mr. Wolfson was known to have little patience for programs that showed no results. When they didn’t, he quickly discontinued them and channeled the funds to programs with greater promise.

Even with projects that succeeded, even excelled, Mr. Wolfson was notorious for never being satisfied. He always wanted to do better. When a program director came back to tell Mr. Wolfson of their success, explaining how they had 500 people in the program, rather than praising them, he would ask, “Why not 1,000?”

While the response often offended or upset the directors in the short term, ultimately, they found that it motivated them to do more. Many of them acknowledged that Mr. Wolfson was able to bring the most out of them and enable them to achieve more than they ever felt possible.

Love of Family

As a driven leader who quietly shouldered great communal burdens, Mr. Wolfson was fortunate to have a family which he loved deeply and with whom he spent his precious moments of rest and relaxation. Although he was busy handling financial and spiritual matters around the globe, Mr. Wolfson almost never missed a Shabbos at home and ate dinner with his family on most nights.

For the last thirty-some years, Mr. Wolfson was fortunate to have the companionship and love of his wife Nechama, yibodel bein chaim l’chaim. She was not only his partner in blending their beautiful family and creating a nurturing home, but collaborated with him in his work for the klal as well. Their goals were one and the same: to love and cherish their family and to be there for those they considered their extended family, the entire Klal Yisroel.

Mr. Wolfson’s admiration for his wife was apparent to all. Anyone who saw Mr. Wolfson walk into an event, knows that he was proudest with her at his side. She gave him strength in ways that no one else could.

He was also a devoted father. His love for his children and concern with their chinuch has borne beautiful fruit. Each of his ten children follows, in his or her own unique way, in his footsteps. Each has sought to work in some important way for the benefit of the Jewish people in their immediate communities, or in the world at large. And each does it with trademark Wolfson traits: With focused determination, a deep sense of personal investment – and a commitment to work without fanfare or plaudits, quietly, behind-the-scenes.

In His Own Words: The Secret of His Success…Which He Was Eager to Share

Mr. Wolfson was most comfortable while in the presence of his family. It is therefore no wonder that one of the few times he spoke about how he achieved his accomplishments, he did so when he was surrounded by his family, at his grandson Binyamin’s bar mitzvah. The wisdom imparted by his words encompasses many themes of classic mussar seforim. He said:

“I would like to utilize this opportunity with all my children and grandchildren assembled in this room to impart to all of you the following ideas, which I consider a key part of my legacy to all of you…Throughout my life, I have always aimed at goals that were at first glance totally beyond me, which at times appeared unattainable. However, when I actually attempted to reach these goals, I often found that almost miraculously, Hashem enabled me to achieve them.

“If I have achieved anything in my life, I believe this has come not because of smarts, and not through riches. I became politically active well before I established myself in life. It has come from the dreams that I dared to dream, and my willingness to act upon them. I was not afraid of the possibility of failure…

“My message to you is that when your dreams are noble and great, you should not be afraid of failures—even if failure seems the most likely outcome. Dream the dream, take the initiative, and the rest is in the hands of Hakadosh Baruch Hu…

“You, too, can have the same experience and the same blessings from Hashem if you disregard your limitations and aim for greater things. Aspire to things that are bigger than you are, and you will see that, with Hashem’s help, you may very well succeed…

“You all know the story of the famous tzadik, Reb Zusha. He said, ‘Hashem will not ask me why I am not like Moshe Rabbeinu because Moshe Rabbeinu was far beyond me, in a different dimension entirely. Hashem will not ask me why I am not like the Rambam, because the Rambam’s intellect was in a league of its own. However, Hashem will ask me why I am not Zusha, and for that I will not have an answer.’ Hashem asks us not to turn our back on the gifts He has given us; but instead, to use our greatness and our own unique potential in His service, and He has given us power to do so.”

Many of us saw Zev Wolfson around town and looked at him with reverence and awe, knowing how much he accomplished in his life and how important he was to the Jewish people. But he saw himself less reverentially. In his own eyes, he was not on a pedestal. He was just a caring Jew doing everything in his power to spread Torah and Yiddishkeit. If he were to end this article, he wouldn’t say that you should emulate him or take this or that course of action. He would likely say: “Be Zusha. Dream of what you can do l’tovas haklal. Don’t dream small; dream big. And don’t let your dreams stay dreams. Try, in practical ways, to make your dreams a reality. Disregard your apparent limitations. They can be illusory. Strive to achieve noble things, and Hashem may well help you achieve what you reach for.”

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