Zev Wolfson, who seamlessly passed from this world to the next on the 25th of Av, 5772, was truly a reincarnation of Eliezer. He immigrated to the United States as a refugee from a Siberian prison camp, having carried his dead father on his back until he could find a place for burial and taken responsibility for his beloved mother and brother in the new, alien world of America.
He was one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met. By dint of his amazing intellect he mastered the workings of the stock market and of real estate. He identified the up-and-coming political leaders of the Senate and House of Representatives, and he navigated the various halls of influence and power in the international arena.
All of these gifts were channeled in one direction: using money and political influence to do God’s will by creating learning institutions for Torah and strengthening the state of Israel with funds and with armaments.
It was he who understood that by contributing to and getting contributors for senators and congressmen who would become instrumental leaders in the Foreign Appropriations Committee, he would be able to help Torah institutions and chesed projects throughout the world. He was a crucial figure in decisions by Congress to reduce Israel’s loan obligations, and due to his connections he effectuated America’s sending Patriot missile batteries to Israel during the 1991 Gulf War.
Most important, he strove to identify those rabbis and educational leaders who would create new avenues in kiruv and would bring assimilating Jews back into the fold. He would relentlessly pursue new people and new ideas. Although he gave generously, he always gave challenge grants. He made certain each person he helped would be pushed almost to the breaking point in continuing to educate and influence greater and greater numbers of Jews.
It was my privilege to have spent entire days with Zev Wolfson – from davening in the morning till 10 or 11 at night. Whenever I was with him, I knew there would be no time for breakfast, lunch or dinner; we rarely got to drink water. His energy and his drive could only be understood as having come from a Divine spirit that gave him no rest when it came to doing God’s work.
He was probably the greatest builder of Torah institutions in history. He felt responsibility for the continuity of the Divine covenant in America and throughout the world after the destruction of the Holocaust. Despite this, not one building, classroom or project bears his name. He was an eved Hashem and ish haElokim who lived selflessly and modestly for the sake of his mission.
He is truly Eliezer.
About the Author: Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the author of the acclaimed “Torah Lights” series (Maggid Books), from which this essay is excerpted (Devarim edition). The chief rabbi of Efrat and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs in Israel, Rabbi Riskin was the founding rabbi of Manhattan’s Lincoln Square Synagogue.
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