As he thinks about the October General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), Mark Wilf smiles. It’s not hard to understand why: At the close of the General Assembly, the Minnesota Vikings co-owner, real estate mogul, and local philanthropist will officially become chairman of the board of JFNA.
“It’s humbling and at the same time exciting to have been selected for this position,” he said during an interview with NJJN in his Short Hills office, replete with a credenza lined with ceremonial footballs. “There’s a lot to be done.”
JFNA is the national umbrella body for 148 Jewish federations, and it provides the “energy and vision” for local federations, Wilf said. The member of Congregation Etz Chaim in Livingston begins his three-year term at the close of the General Assembly, JFNA’s annual meeting attended by thousands of professional and lay leaders, to be held this year at the Tel Aviv Convention Center.
“I’m still getting my arms around it,” the Livingston resident said of his new role, yet he’s confident that his passions — safeguarding the mission of federation, improving Israel-diaspora ties, and ensuring a vibrant Judaism for a young generation — will guide his every decision at JFNA.
When Wilf looks at the Jewish world, he said he is most concerned about two things: the continued strength and survival of the State of Israel, and ensuring a vibrant Jewish culture “where young Jewish people continue to stay engaged in building a community and taking care of each other.” His work with federation, he believes, is the key to managing these issues.
In describing the complex federation model, Wilf simplified it, saying “It’s about building community and [taking] care of our Jewish brothers and sisters around the world and here in the States. It’s the Jewish safety net, whether in Houston, or at the Gaza border, or in the former Soviet Union.”
Calling it the “central address of Jewish philanthropy,” he said, “I’m a great believer that the model of collective giving and collective allocation and collective community building in the Jewish community…[is] a model that has helped us survive as a nation for thousands of years and can continue to benefit the American-Jewish community.”
At the top of his list of goals for JFNA is incorporating young Jews.
“I’m optimistic that as younger people feel the connection, they can make an impact,” Wilf said. “We have to invest in engaging the younger generation.”
The welfare of Israel is also a priority on the Princeton University-educated lawyer’s agenda, particularly when it comes to pluralism and social welfare. He mentioned access to the Kotel and conversion issues as two examples of JFNA’s focus, though he suggested that the organization would try to stay away from Middle East politics. “We need to maintain a strong relationship with Israel,” he said. “Israel needs us and we need the State of Israel.”
His strong support for Israel is rooted in his family’s history: As his parents and grandparents were Holocaust survivors, he learned early in his life that a Jewish state was inexorably tied to existence of the Jewish people. “The bottom line for me is that I grew up in an environment where I understood viscerally that had there been a strong State of Israel, the world would have been very different in those days.”
Wilf, who said he spends about a third of his time on philanthropy, is also focused on ensuring the proper allocation of resources both at home, and abroad. “We need to continue to advocate and make sure those people who don’t have a voice are heard in our local communities,” he said. In some local federations across the country, “the needs that are not right in front of them may not get appropriate resources commensurate with the need.” An example, he said, was the 100,000 elderly Jews in the former Soviet Union who had inadequate food, medical care, and housing, or Jewish communities in distress in Europe and around the world.
“I want to make sure board chairs [and] campaign chairs at various federations fully comprehend the value JFNA provides, whether it’s the effectiveness of our Washington, D.C., office, or engaging young leaders, or consulting to campaigns.”
One of Wilf’s responsibilities in his new position will be to oversee a search for a new JFNA CEO, since Jerry Silverman, amid his second five-year contract, will step down in 18 months. And even though Wilf’s focus and “physical presence” will primarily be with JFNA during his term, he assured NJJN that there would be no change in his financial support and commitment to other organizations.
A partner in the family’s real estate firm Garden Homes, Wilf served as president of the former Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey as well as UJC National Campaign chair and UJA National Young Leadership Cabinet chair. He currently chairs JFNA’s national initiative addressing the needs of Holocaust survivors in the United States, and serves on a variety of educational, philanthropic, and educational boards, including Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, JFNA, JDC, American Society for Yad Vashem, ADL, NYU School of Law (his alma mater), Princeton University President’s Advisory Council, Yeshiva University, Vanderbilt University, and NFL Business Ventures. Mark’s wife, Jane, shares his philanthropic philosophy and is a community leader in her own right, having led many important initiatives, including chairing the Greater MetroWest commUNITY Mission in October.
All four of his children attended the lower school of Golda Och Academy (GOA) in West Orange — The Wilf Lower School Campus — which is among many institutions bearing his family’s name. He is a past vice chair of GOA’s board.
Wilf always points to his parents, Suzie and Joseph Wilf (Joseph died in 2016), for inspiring him, as well as his brother Zygi, through their commitment to Jewish philanthropy. And as the interview winds down, his mother enters his office. He greets her and introduces her, displaying an even bigger smile than the one that had appeared on his face when he thought about becoming chairman at the General Assembly. He knew she would be pleased to find him speaking with someone from the Jewish community.
“Jane and I have four children, and I want to make sure the Jewish world they grow up in is a strong one that has a strong sense of Jewish community and a strong sense of connection to the State of Israel,” he said. “I think the federation movement best embodies those goals.”