This week, Rabbi Yair Hoffman sat down with Aryeh Deri to speak about Reb Zev Wolfson. Aryeh Deri is a highly popular Israeli politician and the former leader of Rav Ovadiah Yoseph’s Shas party. The interview was held in the Daf HaYomi room in Congregation Shomrei Shabbos in Far Rockaway. The interview was conducted in Hebrew. Below is the translation of the interview.
YH: So, Reb Aryeh, how did you first meet Zev Wolfson z”l?
AD: Believe it or not, it was actually through Yitzchok Rabin. Mr. Wolfson came to Rabin’s office and Rabin said, Mr. Wolfson, ‘There is a young man that you must have to meet who shares many of your goals.’ Mr. Wolfson just came to my office unannounced. I had no idea who he was and we spoke.
YH: You hit it off right away?
AD: Actually no. At the beginning we did not get on well at all. But soon we developed very close ties and became quite close.
AD: Reb Zev Wolfson’s life has to be divided into two parts. There is Zev Wolfson the askan and Zev Wolfson the Gvir. [Askan means involved person and Gvir means financial benefactor]. I was familiar with him in both facets of his assistance to the state. As far as his askanut – there was no one who did more for Sefardic Jewry and for their hatzalah than Zev Wolfson.
YH: Specifically –
AD: Well, let me give you a typical example. As you know, he was involved in Chinuch Atzmai from the very beginning and was Rav Aharon Kotler’s right hand man.. But in the very beginning, the State did not help the Chinuch Atzmai school system at all. There were some very serious financial problems in the beginning. The treasurer at the time was a fellow named Shlomo Hoffman. And no, I do not believe that he was any relation to you, though I could be mistaken..
YH: No, no relation. [laughs]
AD: [laughs]. Anyway, one day, Shlomo Hoffman receives an urgent phone call the Foreign Office in Israel. “You have caused enormous damage to the State of Israel. You must come down immediately.” Hoffman is in a state of shock. What had he done? What were they talking about? He went down and was told by the ambassador’s staff member, “A fellow named Mr. Zev Wolfson had contacted a number of senators that all aid to Israel should be temporarily stopped until the financial problems in the religious sector of Israel’s schools are resolved to the satisfaction of Shlomo Hoffman.” What is the meaning of this? Hoffman answered that he had no idea. Needless to say the Israelis fixed the problem and the aid was given. In fact, Wolfson had made sure that in the allocation there was a stipulation that the funding be exclusively for Sefardic Jews.
YH: That is not the case now. I know that all the Chinuch Atzmai schools get allocations.
AD: Yes, Menachem Porush addressed that and had that changed to include Ashkenazim [laughs]..
YH: Oh well [laughs]..
YH: What other aspects..
AD: Oh he did much more than this. He realized that we had to do more than the schooling system was doing and that is when he began backing the Metivtot programs. No one can possibly fathom what he did, but he was intimately involved in the creation of some 70 dormitory schools throughout Israel. He helped them all. Rav Tenami’s Metivta, the Orach Chaim Metivta, Rav Blechner’s place and many many more.
YH: This was strictly through his financial support?
AD: No, he was also able to take advantage of some refugee funding and helped direct it there. However, eventually they stopped the programming.
Also, I just want to add that both my brother and I personally benefitted from Mr. Wolfson’s efforts I came to Israel from Morrocco in 1968 with my brother. I was 9 my brother was 11. He is now the Rabbi of Be’er Sheva. Were it not for Wolfson neither of us would be where we are today. His assistance with the buildings and such was not only through the United States. He was able to do this France as well and was close to Chirac
YH: In what other capacity did he assist the State of Israel?
AD: In both loans and loan guarantees through his lobbying, he was able to shave off percentage of points. Indeed, Rabin told me about him that there was never a Jew who had helped Eretz Yisroel as much as he had.
But also, Rabin told me that in 1973 during the Yom Kippur War the Syrians were already in Tveria. Boruch Hashem we were able to push them back, but there was no more ammunition. Golda Meir reached out to President Nixon. She begged. She pleaded. She even cried. But he was not budging. Kissinger also seemed to be unmoved by her pleas. They did not want to provide Israel with material assistance, apparently because theyw ere afraid of being cut off from Arab oil. It was Zev Wolfson who individually contacted the senators who pressured the president.
I had asked Mr. Wolfson about it later, and at first he was reluctant to describe what he had done, but he did tell me. Mr. Wolfson had posed the question to Rav Moshe Feinstein [zt”l], who had told him that he may even travel on the Shabbos to lobby the senators in person. This is exactly what he did. He travelled to Washington on Shabbos with the heter of Rav Moshe Feinstein.
[More to appear in the print edition of the 5TJT on Thursday]
YH: How did he perceive his role or his mission in your estimation?
AD: He looked at things as if it was not his money at all. He viewed himself as merely a Gabbai. This, by the way, explains all the stories about him travelling coach instead of First or Business class.. Whenever he came to Eretz Israel he was busy all days with meetings about what he could do to help. From morning until night.
I think that also, his view of how to look at things transferred to his children. He leaves behind a family of Yarei Shamayim that are following in his footsteps.
YH: Thank you so much Reb Aryeh, it was a pleasure sitting down with you.
AD: The pleasure was mine. Please feel free any time to reach out to me.
YH: And a safe trip home!