Friday, August 31, 2012

Temporarily Embarrassed

The purpose of this blog is to provide something inspiring for Friday night dinner conversation. Please print and share.

 Here's a trick pair of questions for your Shabbat table:

1. How would you like to become the greatest philanthropist of all time?
2. What does it take?

It's a trick question because many people will answer, let me win the mega-jackpot and then I'll become the greatest philanthropist of all time.

But it don't work like that, kee-mo-sabee.

Two weeks ago the world lost such a man.

And you probably never heard of him.

Not that he gave anonymously, only that he focused on the success of the project, not wanting an ounce of the spotlight for himself. He never put his name on a building or project.

So what did it take for him to become the greatest philanthropist?

The following story perhaps gives us a clue:

Once upon a time, several years ago, a young Jewish businessman asked the philanthropist if he would be willing to meet with a group of young professionals to advise them on "how to get involved in helping the community".

"I don't believe there is such a group," he retorted.

"No, there really is," said the young man.

"I don't believe it, but if you insist, have them come here tomorrow morning."

"Umm...they have all just begun new jobs, would it be OK if we make it in one week?"


A week later, they show up and Mr. Philanthropist tells them, "When I was asked to meet with a group of young men who want to become activists for the Jewish community, I didn't believe that there were such men. And now that you're all here, I still don't believe it. Do you know what it means to be an activist? I'll tell you what it means. When I was your age, I bought a train ticket to Washington. I knocked on the door of every single senator. I had the door slammed in my face dozens of times. Finally, one was willing to talk to me.

"I didn't wait for someone to help me become an activist. I didn't wait for someone to tell me what to do. I went out and did it. If you're serious, you don't need me or my advice."

The philanthropist's name was Zev Wolfson.

He was Israel's biggest advocate before there was AIPAC. Through tireless effort, he had the ear of senators and congressmen, members of Kenesset and many others.

One of many anecdotes told:

During the first Gulf War, Wolfson invited Senator Inouye out on his boat, which he used almost exclusively for entertaining politicians or officials he felt it important to impress. He asked Senator Inouye if there was not anything in the American arsenal to protect Israel from the Iraqi Scud missiles. The senator told him about the Patriot missile batteries. If so, Wolfson asked, why hadn’t the United States supplied Israel with the Patriots? 

Senator Inouye replied that Israel must not have sought them. Zev immediately got on the yacht’s phone and called then-defense minister Yitzchak Rabin to relay the message. The next day’s New York Times headline read, “US to supply Patriots to Israel.” The last paragraph explained that the decision had been taken after a meeting between “US officials and Jewish leaders.” 
He wielded similar influence in the power centers of Israel and even France. Senator Trent Lott was of the opinion that Wolfson's success at lobbying came from his pure, selfless passion, never seeking anything for himself. While he did help politicians raise funds, he was not a mega-donor to their campaigns. He did phone them up late at night and early in the morning. He shunned honor and chased results.

He built or persuaded others to build Jewish schools all over the world, including North and South America, Israel, France and the FSU.

Yet he despite his yacht and prime real estate in lower Manhattan, he personally lived simply, with a "child-friendly" home for his many children and grandchildren, some of whom learned from friends that their own family was wealthy.

Think of the walk-of-shame past the first class seats boarding an airplane, which the average person endures because we know that one day we'll surely be able to fly first class too. "The poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires" (Steinbeck). Wolfson flew economy because First Class was an unnecessary luxury to him. His wealth was for public service, not for indulgence.

I haven't told you the half of the amazing things Zev Wolfson accomplished for the Jewish People and the world. Yet he always said, "There's nothing special about me. If I could do it, so could you." Something to contemplate approaching Rosh Hashana?

May his memory be for a blessing.

Shabbat Shalom

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