Vikings owner recalls his parents’ legacy

Vikings owner recalls his parents’ legacy

Mark Wilf, owner and president of the Minnesota Vikings and principal in Garden Homes Development, his family’s real estate business, shared his family background, commitment to tzedaka, and approach to the football business in a talk on April 21 at Princeton University.

Introducing Wilf, a 1984 Princeton graduate and a Livingston resident, to a large crowd that included many university football players was Rabbi Julie Roth, executive director of the Center for Jewish Life/Hillel at Princeton.

“We may not have football in common,” she said, “but what we do have in common is that we both have parents who are Holocaust survivors who have inspired us to live our lives to the fullest, appreciate our many blessings, and give back to the community.”

Wilf opened by reading a story his grandmother, his “Babu Miriam” Fisch, wrote for a Holocaust commemoration. One day while they were still in the ghetto, in expectation of a raid, the four Fisches joined 10 to 15 others huddled in the dark cellar. 

During a battle between the Gestapo and the Jewish militia, a child cried out in the cellar. 

The results were tragic. As Miriam Fisch wrote, “The mother in the cellar, fearing a discovery when the lives of many were in danger, put her hand over the child’s mouth. The child never cried again, ever.” 

During the war Miriam Fisch lived as a Polish farmworker with Christian papers, with her son, Erwin Fisch, and her daughter, Wilf’s mother Suzie. Her husband, Wilf’s grandfather, hid under floorboards of the farm’s barn for nearly two years.

Following liberation, Wilf’s mother and father, Joseph, met in the American-occupied zone of Germany before resettling in America. 

Here, Wilf said, he and his brothers “focused on growing up and having the American life my parents dreamed of for my family.”

Once in America, Joseph and his brother Harry expanded their business from two single-family homes in Rahway to one of the largest real estate development companies in the United States. 

Mark Wilf and his brother Zygmunt became lead owners of the Minnesota Vikings in 2005. His family had been football fans for years, having held season tickets for the New York Giants since 1959. “Going to football games was a big bonding experience with my family,” he said. 

As president of the Vikings, Wilf said, he has stabilized the franchise, created a “championship culture,” and has already completed most of a new stadium.

The Wilfs divided the functions of head coach and general manager into two positions. “Personnel guys think long term; coaches think short term,” he said, noting that the two need to work together.

The new stadium, a subject of intense debate in Minneapolis over the public share of its cost, is meant to improve the experience of fans who otherwise have the option of watching a game at home on high-definition TV. After pulling in financial commitments from the city and state — and contributing what press reports say will be 52 percent of the nearly $1 billion cost — the Wilfs are building a new stadium with twice the seating of the old one. It includes eight club lounges, 2,400 high-definition TVs, numerous video boards, and seats and suites close to the action. 

The team culture he has fostered is one of teamwork and connection, he said. “If we win a playoff, everyone gets a check,” he said. The players are also expected to do regular community service.

The Wilf Family Foundation has followed suit in the Minneapolis community, including providing support for the Wilf Family Center at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital as well as the Viking Children’s Fund, which has built playgrounds yearly in poor neighborhoods, and the Second Harvest Heartland summer lunch program. 

Wilf, a former president of the historic Jewish Federation of Central NJ, is a vice chair of the board of trustees of Jewish Federations of North America and serves on the executive board of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. He and his family, whose NJ roots are in Hillside, have been major benefactors of the Jewish Educational Center of Elizabeth, Princeton University and its CJL/Hillel, and Rutgers Hillel and of numerous programs in Israel and New Jersey to commemorate the Holocaust and to aid survivors, including as supporters of the American Society for Yad Vashem.

Richard Bush, a freshman center on Princeton University’s varsity football team, who said he is interested in the sports business, expressed his excitement at learning from Wilf. “He is someone you can emulate, who knows what it takes.” 

Wilf ended his talk with advice to his fellow Princetonians. “To be part of something bigger than yourselves is so fulfilling, whether it is business, a sports team, or being part of your community,” he said. “Make sure you give a piece of yourself to philanthropy and society — it is important to round you out as a human being.”

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