‘The global table of the Jewish community’

‘The global table of the Jewish community’

Mark Wilf of Livingston becomes chair of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s board of governors

Mark Wilf, left, and Doron Almog, the Jewish Agency’s new chair of the executive, are at the board meeting.
Mark Wilf, left, and Doron Almog, the Jewish Agency’s new chair of the executive, are at the board meeting.

You know the way children sometimes imagine their place in the world? You start with your name — that’s just you — and you go from your house number to your street to your town to your state to your country to your planet to your galaxy to the universe. It’s purely factual and it also includes a vast sense of expansiveness and possibility.

Sometimes adults can do that too.

Take Mark Wilf.

Mr. Wilf, the son of Holocaust survivor parents, lives in Livingston; he and his family run Garden Homes, and from there he and his brother, Zygi, and their cousin Lenny have gone on to own the Minnesota Vikings. (Mark Wilf is the team’s president.) Starting local, staying local, branching out.

Mr. Wilf has been active in a number of Jewish organizations, including the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest — the Wilf Family Foundation, which his father, Joseph, and his uncle, Harry, created in 1964. He gave the federation $15 million in February.

That’s local.

Moving on to North America, Mr. Wilf has just finished his term as chair of the board of the Jewish Federations of North America.

Where do you go from there? What’s next?

The Jewish Agency sponsored this “aliyah event.” (Zoog Productions/ Jewish Agency for Israel)

So Mark Wilf now is the chairman of the board of governors of the Jewish Agency, the fabled Sachnut.

The Jewish Agency for Israel, which will celebrate its centennial later this decade — it was founded in 1929 — works to facilitate aliyah and to weave Israeli and Diaspora Jews into an ever-tighter bond, thus strengthening Jewish life both in Israel and outside it. Now, in this particularly unstable moment, it’s working to help Ukrainian Jewish refugees, as well as to bring Ethiopians to Israel. It’s also overseeing programs that bring young Israelis to Jewish communities in North America as shlichim; those programs provide Diaspora Jews with insight into Israeli life, and at the same time give those young emissaries a firsthand look at life in North America.

Moving from the JFNA to the Jewish Agency makes perfect sense for Mr. Wilf. “My family and I have always been very Zionistic,” he said. “That goes back to my father and my uncle in their Zionist summer camps in Poland, before the war. We’ve all been investors and builders in Israel; we’ve all been involved both in business and philanthropically.

“The Jewish Agency is the global table for the Jewish community. It is very powerful, very impactful, and very much aligned with my role at the JFNA.

“Its three core areas — aliyah, connecting Jews worldwide, and strengthening Israeli society — is all about strengthening us for the next generation.

“A strong state of Israel is an anchor for a strong Jewish community worldwide.”

The more Jews in and outside Israel understand each other, the better off the community is, Mr. Wilf continued. Travel and in-person meetings create strong bonds; the pandemic got in the way of making those connections, and everyone suffered from it. But now, “I am excited about the next few years,” he said. He is particularly pleased that Doron Almog, the retired IDF major general, is now the Jewish Agency’s new chair of the executive. (Yes, that’s his official title.) “Doron is such a great example of what it means to be a leader,” Mr. Wilf said. “It’s not just his military background, but also his personal journey. I look forward to his being better known in the Diaspora, and I look forward to working with him.”

He also hopes that the Jewish Agency and its work become better known in the United States. “It’s all about people to people,” he said. It’s not just that Americans have a great deal to learn about Israel; Israelis, too, can learn about the rest of the Jewish world. “Israelis have to understand the Diaspora better,” he said. “I would call it Jewish literacy about Jewish peoplehood.”

On the Diaspora side, “There is a lot of education about Israel that needs to happen,” Mr. Wilf said. “As people learn the big-picture facts, that Israel is one of the oldest democratic countries in the Middle East, that it’s a strong ally of the United States, when they learn the particularities of the political situation – I just don’t think that there is enough known about what’s going on in Israel.

The Jewish Agency’s New York office was represented at this year’s Celebrate Israel parade in Manhattan. (Raphael Rice/Jewish Agency for Israel)

“We need stronger literacy on Jewish people. We have to know each other better. We have to know the history of the people, and knowing that, we’d know why we need a strong state of Israel.”

Mr. Wilf assumes his new post just as Russia is preparing measures that would, in effect, prevent the Jewish Agency from operating in the country in retaliation for its efforts to aid Ukrainian refugees and emigres to Israel. (For an analysis of the situation, see Alexander Smukler’s insights on Page 8.)

What about the situation at the Kotel, the Western Wall in Jerusalem? That’s where many tensions between Diaspora Jews, who tend to be more liberal in their religious thinking, and Israelis, who are more likely to be either Orthodox or entirely secular (but as the cliché goes, the shul they don’t go to is Orthodox), simmer just below the surface. Sometimes they boil over, as they did last month, when a group of young charedi men attacked American Jews holding bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies. The Americans, who were Conservative, were not at the Kotel itself but at Robinson’s Arch, an outlying stretch of wall where they’d been allowed to hold services.

The Jewish Agency was active in coming up with a solution to some of the issues posed by religious divisions at the wall; the country’s prime minister at the time, Benjamin Netanyahu, first accepted the plan, at least in theory, but then froze it.

“We passed a resolution about protecting the people at the pluralistic section of the Kotel,” Mr. Wilf said. “Every Jew around the world should feel safe and respected praying there. We wrote a letter to Lapid” — that’s Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid — “and he did make a statement immediately. We did reach out to one of the families and we are following up. We are beginning to set up some meetings.” He’s not free to talk about details, Mr. Wilf said, but, he repeated, “the Kotel should be a safe and respectful place for people to pray.”

The Jewish Agency “is very active on the ground” in its work with Ukrainian Jews, Mr. Wilf said. “We’re saving Jewish lives. From Day I since the war, over 11,500 Ukrainian Jews found a new home in Israel. And we’ve protected and supported the Jews who remain in Ukraine. We work with the JDC” — the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. “We are in an emergency phase now. We recognize that there will be a long-term phase and we want to focus on rescue and aliyah, and helping those Jews who want to remain with their absorption.

“And after the war, whenever that will be, we will help rebuild the Ukrainian jewish community. We are raising funds, working hand in glove with the federations.

“We have a lot of work ahead of us.

The Jewish Agency’s mission now, Mr. Wilf said, is “to restore and revitalize and increase the Israel experience trips. We have to continue and expand the dialogue.

“It is a great honor and privilege to take on this role,” he concluded. “I look forward to building on the great legacy of the Jewish Agency.”

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