|Born||September 27, 1928|
|Died||August 13, 2012(aged 83)|
|Occupation||real estate developer|
Born a to Jewish family, Wolfson was a war refugee from Wilno (then Poland), at the age of 13, and spent the remainder of the war in Siberia. At 15, he carried his father’s dead body over his shoulder to bury him in the frozen tundra, and took responsibility for the support of his mother and younger brother. At 17 he obtained visas, and they immigrated to New York City.
Wolfson started developing real estate in the 1960s, eventually building skyscrapers in Manhattan's financial district. In the 1980s he started to leverage his assets to invest in hedge funds. During the following years his wealth grew rapidly, eventually cycling hundreds of millions of dollars. He then became very active in politics. 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. 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.
Relationship with Israel and politics
In 1985, at a time of hyperinflation in Israel, 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, 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.
A senior Israeli finance ministry official once noted that when the economic history of the State of Israel is written, 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 Wolfson 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. The vast majority of these lobbying efforts were at 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.
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 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 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, 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, Wolfson found his ability to fund his projects via either the Israeli or American governments greatly circumscribed. At that point, Wolfson began giving from his personal fortune on a scale perhaps unprecedented in 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 attracted by those who thought big, and often complained that there were not enough high-impact projects for the money he wanted to give.
Wolfson has 10 children, who still continue his business after his death in 2012 at the age of 84.
- "Thirty Days Since His Passing: Mr. Zev Wolfson Z"L, His Story, Ideals and What Made Him Great". Yeshiva World News. September 20, 2012. Retrieved August 29, 2013.
- JONATHAN ROSENBLUM (August 22, 2012). "Think Again: Zev Wolfson, a larger-than-life figure". Jpost.
- "Zev Wolfson (1928- 2012)". Eilat Gordin Levitan. Retrieved 15 February 2014.
- "Reb Zev Wolfson z"l". August 13, 2012.
- Jonathan Rosenblum. "Zev Wolfson: One of a Kind". Aish.com. Retrieved August 29, 2013.
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