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Life’s work in Jewish service inspired by three words: ‘Am Yisrael Chai’

He led the Jewish Federations of North America in a transformative way, both by design and out of necessity. Now, Mark Wilf hmoves on to chair the board of governors for the Jewish Agency for Israel.

By Mike Wagenheim

(JNS) An established businessman and generous philanthropist, Mark Wilf was elected as the Jewish Federations of North America’s Board of Trustees Chair in 2018. Beyond helming a successful real estate development firm, and serving as owner and president of the National Football League’s Minnesota Vikings, Wilf was already a notable figure in the Jewish world, having previously served as UJC National Campaign Chair, UJA National Young Leadership Cabinet Chair and president of the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey. The son of Holocaust survivors, Wilf chaired JFNA’s national initiative that addresses the needs of impoverished Holocaust survivors living in the United States.

Whatever plans he had developed on the basis of those experiences in preparation for his JFNA chairmanship were largely placed aside as his tenure carried him, JFNA and the American Jewish community into unchartered territory.

As his position comes to a close on Wilf is slated to serve a three-year term as chairman of the  Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel beginning July 12, 2022. He succeeds current chair Michael D. Siegal.

Recently, JNS sat down with Wilf, to discuss his experience at JFNA and his view toward the future.

The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: Is it even possible to summarize these last nearly four years?

A: You can never anticipate any job you take on. Events have a way of taking over. But I think it’s safe to say that in these past nearly four years, events have taken on a proportion that’s really quite dramatic, to say the least. I call it a form of a silver lining through all the difficulties the Jewish community faced and the world has faced. One of my goals and our goals as a team was just to transform and reawaken the understanding of the importance of having community infrastructure, a strong Federation system. And as a result of that, I think it’s become fairly recognized—certainly around the Jewish communal world—that the Jewish Federations have undergone a massive transformation in the last few years. Again, re-establishing that we are the central crucial role in supporting flourishing Jewish communities, connecting to world Jewry and Israel.

Note: Wilf was elected chair of the board of trustees on Oct. 21, 2018. The terror attack at Pittsburghs Tree of Life synagogue occurred six days later.

That was really the first incredible transformation to … it’s a tipping point, if you will, to say the safety, the security that maybe we took for granted or maybe we expected, took a dramatic turn, and I think it woke every community up—every Jewish American up in the world to say we can’t take anything for granted. And here we are almost four years later. We’ve established a significant security campaign and launched LiveSecure (an unprecedented $54 million campaign initiative to ensure the security and resiliency of North American Jewish communities). I’ve been saying this lately: When things are relatively calm, Federation is maybe not as in people’s consciousness the same way, but the fact is that when there’s a fire, you need to have a firehouse built and ready to go. And that’s what the Federation system is. And I’m very proud of the work of our officer team, our volunteers and professionals around the country—really heroic efforts through the security challenges, through the pandemic, through “Operation Guardian of the Walls” and the missiles in Israel. And now through Ukraine. The events, one after the other, show us that we have to always be prepared and vigilant.

Q: Theres an old saying that man plans and G-d laughs. What was your original plan four years ago, and how much did it diverge because of circumstances beyond your control and imagination?

A: I’d be curious to look back to what I actually might have said back then. I mean, it certainly was to raise the awareness, the connectivity of all our communities, and the importance of Federation and building community. And of being a convener—being a tent, if you will, with relatively open flaps, that can be a meeting place for Jewish community of all types—denomination, political leaning, that could help build Jewish life. We can help connect young people, particularly, to global Jewish peoplehood and humanitarian connection.

So, a lot has happened. We helped select Eric Fingerhut as our president and CEO, and he’s coming up on three years now in the job.

The pandemic was unprecedented. I recall being on countless Zoom meetings. I mean, that was it. The reality of Zoom was something no one could expect. About half of my term was spent on Zoom, and I recall very vividly during the early days of the pandemic, in particular, the PPE (personal protective equipment) loans and what that did for the community. We’d have these webinars with thousands, literally thousands, of people, and each of those people represented a synagogue, a day school, a Jewish community center. And I know for a fact that thousands of institutions were saved by our advocacy work in Washington, by our grant-writing advocacy to help institutions connect and navigate the world of those loans; it was a bridge to get them through the harshest days of the pandemic.

LiveSecure, I mentioned earlier, we created and launched that again on the heels of Pittsburgh. And I can tell you one of the most profound experiences I had was going to Pittsburgh that Sunday evening and seeing more than 100 clergy members from every religion, every denomination in the spectrum of the world in Pittsburgh with thousands of people in that beautiful memorial hall. And just how everyone came together; that support and strength is something I will never forget. And I remember one of the Muslim religious leaders said we’re going to go and protect your institutions. We’ll be on guard with you. And that was powerful.

And now, we’re in the midst of just getting going on Ukraine. Another touch point for me was going to the Poland-Ukraine border. From a personal level, that was very powerful. My parents are Holocaust survivors. My mom was from Lviv in Poland—now it’s Ukraine, of course. And my dad grew up maybe 10 minutes away from this border, and we’re seeing thousands of refugees come in. And I know 80 years ago, my parents were refugees, and there was no State of Israel, and no one in the world was thinking about taking care of them or any the people that were so dramatically affected by those events then. And now, here we are. The first flag you see going across the border was an Israeli flag, a humanitarian tent and on Polish soil, where 80 years ago there was no State of Israel, and no one who looked out for them. To see that Polish flag was also something very dramatic.

I’m very proud of the way we responded, the way we’ve come together. And one other important point, which was also a goal, but was dramatically accelerated, was the ability to work across all organizations. Out of the pandemic, we developed a coalition to deal with the pandemic, where we had national organizations, both lay and professional, from JCCs, from Jewish Family Services, from Hillel, from all the denominations, and we have continued that process of getting together weekly. And now it’s evolved from pandemic discussions to other topics—ways we can be more efficient, ways we can connect to people.

Q: There are certain events like Ukraine that have united the Jewish community. Obviously, theres always a divergence of opinions and philosophies; thats one of the strengths of the Jewish community. But sometimes, it goes beyond that. How do you see the state of the unification or lack thereof of the American Jewish community right now and where it goes from here, especially politically?

A: Well, I don’t want to overuse the fire analogy. But when there are all these crises around you and humanitarian suffering, it gets you laser-focused, and any divisions there might be become relatively … I don’t want to say trivial, because there’s some seriousness sometimes in how we approach the world. But we certainly are all recognizing that we are greater and stronger as a collective. And JFNA and the Federation system can help be a convener for that. I think that’s happened. And Ukraine is a perfect example. You have not just traditional partners like JDC [the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee] and Yaffe, which do incredible work. But again, we work with Hillel, we work with United Hatzalah. We work with Chabad. We work with all the groups on the ground and figure out a way that we’re not tripping over each other, and we can be as impactful and effective as we have to be. So, it’s a story that needs to be understood more.

The other thing I think is worth noting is while there are 200,000 Jews in Ukraine—and there’s a big Jewish community in Russia impacted, as well—but they’re nearly 6 million people, out of 44 million people, the largest refugee migration since World War II, leaving Ukraine. And part of our fundraising, part of our work, is humanitarian and non-sectarian. So, we’re very proud of the fact that we’re part of that global response as well because I think that’s also the role of the Jewish community—to be responsive to all the suffering going on, as much as we can.

Q: What are you going to miss?

A: I’ve been so busy running through the tape here that I haven’t been able to spend too much time thinking about it. Listen, I love the work; it’s very rewarding. I will certainly miss the daily interactions with Eric, with the officers, with all the great lay and professionals, going to communities and seeing Jewish life flourishing. I was just in Indianapolis, for instance, last night, and getting to see all the great points of light around the country, seeing tables of three generations—grandparents, children and grandchildren—all connecting to the community. So, I’ll miss that because I get massive energy from that. But I feel encouraged and very positive about the future of the United States, which has been so great to my own family. But just for all of us as a Jewish community, I feel that seeing it firsthand, as I have these past few years, I feel so positive about the ability to continue to flourish here in North America, to continue to stay connected with Israel. And I hope that grows significantly and continues to grow in future generations. My own son just came back from being a counselor on Birthright, and I know there were 11,000 young people that got to go back to Israel again in May. So, what I’ll miss is all the energy I get from all the incredible people that help do all this sacred work.

Q: Youve got a couple of side ventures, including one thats very high-profile with the Vikings. Are you diving headlong back into those?

A: You know, I will continue to just keep busy. I’m blessed to have incredible support from my wife, Jane, and my kids. My whole family [they have four children] is so supportive of the work I do. So, I’ll hopefully keep a hand in the Jewish community somehow.

I do want to highlight that there is a lot of great, new young talent in the professional ranks within the JFNA. We made a lot of progress on getting a handle on big data. I think data is a big buzzword, and it should be. We have to understand who our donors are, who our participants are in all our activities, new models and how to engage young people. So, while we’re doing the normal responsiveness that we’re more well-known for and need to continue to grow and be as effective as we can be—and we’ve come a long way in all those areas, too—we’ve really implemented or begun to implement a lot of things recommended in a strategic study from before I took over. Things like talent development, data aggregation, connecting to communities better.

One other little piece. I end almost all my remarks with an expression that is very powerful to me. And I think it represents really what JFNA is about, what is deep in my own heart. I say Am Yisrael Chai (“the people of Israel live”), and it’s just a few words, but it’s very powerful, and it’s a 1,000-year-old tradition. And we’re not a large number of people—the Jewish people—but we’re very impactful. And I’ll never stop saying that expression and being very proud of the fact that this work is a big piece of that.

PHOTO: Mark Wilf

CAP: Mark Wilf (right), then chair of the JFNA board of trustees, visited the Poland-Ukraine border. (Jewish Federations of North America)

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