This year marks a double milestone for the Wilf family: Garden Homes — the Short Hills real estate development business started by brothers Harry and Joe Wilf, Holocaust survivors from Poland — is 60 years old. And the family philanthropy, the Wilf Family Foundation, which they started just 10 years later, and expanded into seven foundations, is marking its 50th anniversary.
Family members celebrated both occasions on Dec. 3 at Crystal Plaza in Livingston, with a luncheon attended by representatives from dozens of institutions and organizations they support, and in the afternoon held a reception for those involved with Garden Homes.
It was also an opportunity to celebrate Joe Wilf’s upcoming 90th birthday.
In this past half century, the family foundations have given a total of more than $200 million to the Jewish community and Israel, and causes that range from Holocaust remembrance to education, health, social services, human rights, the arts, children’s day camps, art programs, athletics, and veterans’ support.
Joe and Harry helped establish Yad Vashem and played leadership roles in dozens of other Jewish organizations, as have their sons. Locally, the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ and its partner agencies, as well as a number of local educational facilities, have been major beneficiaries.
In a rare move this month, the family reached out to the media. Their preference is usually to keep a low profile, but philanthropy represents a side of their lives far removed from the rough-and-tumble world of commercial real estate, and the intense scrutiny they face in another capacity — as owners of the Minnesota Vikings football team. In an interview at the foundation offices in Short Hills, they talked about what inspires them and their gratitude to those who accept their support.
Joe wasn’t there, but his wife, Suzie, was, together with Audrey, the wife of their son Zygi, and their son Mark and his wife, Jane. Lenny, son of the late Harry and Judith Wilf, joined the conversation by phone from his office in Manhattan.
“The tradition of giving back is something that we as a family have been fortunate enough to do,” Mark said. “It’s a great privilege. And this 50th anniversary gives us a nice milestone to celebrate.”
Audrey summed up their approach: “It’s a chance for us to thank the organizations that we support for the work that they do, for letting us be part of that.”
The tradition of giving goes way back, to Europe, before the war, to Joe and Harry’s parents, Ella and Oscar, who came with them to the United States, and to other relatives of that generation.
Suzie, who married Joe in Germany in 1949, recalled how giving was taught by her parents, Miriam and Markus Fisch in their home in Lvov: “There was always a pushke — a collection box — on the table, and we always gave, even if just on a small scale,” she said. “We were taught that it was a mitzva for people to ask for help and give us the chance to help them”
Coming to the United States in 1950 opened up new possibilities for her and Joe, and for Harry and Judith. “It was the ‘Goldene medina,’” Suzie said with a smile. With success came new options and new responsibilities. The establishment of the foundation, she said, “was due to the insight of Harry and Joe. It was their creation,” as a way to provide a formal structure for their expanding philanthropic activity.
Asked whether she ever had to force her children to follow their example of giving, she laughed and declared, “Never. I was just lucky with them. And I have been lucky with my daughters-in-law and my grandchildren.”
Lenny said he and his cousins learned about the various worthy organizations at the quarterly family meetings. There was no need to push them to get involved. “As my father said, if you do good things, good things will come to you,” he recalled. “The rewards are emotional.”
It wasn’t ever just a matter of giving money. The Wilfs have always involved themselves in the organizations they support, helping to develop the causes that inspire them, and deriving immense satisfaction from seeing the results of that partnership. “It makes you want to give,” Mark said. “It’s one thing to give a check, but there is another kind of satisfaction if you’re involved in the work.”
Stanley Stone can vouch for that involvement. He met Joe in 1993 when he was interviewed for the position of executive director of what was then the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey. Stone, now senior vice president of the merged Greater MetroWest federation, said the Wilfs’ interest — aptly for real estate titans — “is in building and sustaining. They express their concerns, and their pleasure is in seeing the organizations they support succeed and thrive.”
Joe, Zygi, and Mark all served as presidents of the Central federation, in addition to other leadership roles.
Dr. Joyce Raynor, head of school of the Golda Och Academy in West Orange, witnessed that attitude when she got to know Zygi and then Mark and Jane when their children attended the school. Their involvement has continued long after the children left. “The breadth of their reach and concern is amazing,” she said.
Tom Beck, executive director of Jewish Family Service of Central NJ, said, “The Wilf Family Foundation has supported nearly every program the agency provides.” And, as elsewhere, they gave time as well as money: Joe was JFS president from 1990 to ’92; Audrey and Jane, and Suzie’s brother Erwin Fisch are all current board members.
The family has also played a major role in supporting other federation-affiliated institutions, including the Jewish Educational Center in Elizabeth and the Wilf Jewish Community Campus in Scotch Plains.
At the Dec. 3 luncheon, the “next generation” was represented by Elana Wilf Tanzman, 27, Zygi and Audrey’s daughter, who is an assistant deputy public defender. “Our parents, aunts, and uncles — and most importantly our grandparents — instilled in us from a very young age the concepts of both tzedaka and tikun olam,” giving and repairing the world, she said. “These guideposts have been with me for as long as I can remember.”