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The Experiential Philanthropist: A Conversation with Mark Wilf

Mark Wilf is principal in the Garden Homes Development, a family-owned real estate business. He also serves as a vice chair of the Board of Trustees of The Jewish Federations of North America and, along with his older brother Zygi and cousin Leonard, as the principal owner of the National Football League’s Minnesota Vikings.

The Wilf family is a major, longtime supporter of Yeshiva University, whose uptown campus bears the family’s name. They are key benefactors to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem, and were the largest contributors to its new Holocaust History Museum.

The Wilf family has been a significant patron of Yeshiva University. However, your philanthropic interests lie beyond the confines of Yeshiva University. What is your ethos of giving?

Our main focus is the Jewish community. Our family philosophy—and this comes from my father and my late uncle—is about giving back to the entire Jewish community. Obviously, education is a big component of that, and that’s where Yeshiva University comes in. But we are giving to other areas, in medical research through Einstein or Jewish social service agencies through the Jewish Federation movement. Holocaust remembrance is a big component of our giving, whether to Yad Vashem or to American Holocaust museums and centers. Yes, we give to many different kinds of institutions, but our primary focus is the Jewish community.

You keep mentioning the pronoun “we.” What role does family play in charitable giving?

We have a family foundation and several family members are trustees of the foundation. We get together and discuss our philanthropy—the vision and the outlook in terms of the giving that we want to do and the goals we want to accomplish. The direction has really come from the founders of the foundation: my father and my late uncle. We, as the next generation, will try to continue their legacy of giving.

Can you talk about your family history?

My parents are both Holocaust survivors. My father is from Jaroslaw, Poland. My mother was from Lvov, Poland. They came to the United States in 1950. They established a family and started a real estate business—of course now we are in the sports business. We are now approaching our 60th year in the business. Along the lines of being fortunate in the business world, a big part of what we try to do is give back to the community. YU is one of our biggest connections, and spending the day here with some of our students has been very inspirational to me personally—seeing not just a Torah environment, but also seeing students taking part in the Jewish community as a whole and in the society at large. Students here are giving back. The students taking part in the Center for the Jewish Future’s work are setting a wonderful example.

After Hurricane Sandy hit the New York metropolitan area, the Wilf family immediately pledged $100,000 to help victims and, over the course of the relief efforts, you have given far more. Why was it important for the family to give to relief efforts?

There are a lot of people we knew and towns we worked in that suffered greatly through the storm and the aftermath. It’s important to recognize the human needs that we can take care of—that we must support. Whether it was the governor’s efforts in New Jersey or other organizations, we wanted to lend support.

How would you characterize your relationship with the institutions you support? Do you visit? Do you invest in the direction of those institutions?

We as a family feel that it is important to be involved. We try to serve on boards and advisors. It’s important for our children to learn about philanthropy and for them to see where their money is going.

Do you have any anxieties about raising your children in affluence?

It’s something I always want to be mindful about. It’s important as a parent to make sure my children take care of themselves first—that they get a good education, learn to give back, and be part of a community. Those are the values my wife and I want to instill. I was fortunate to have the role models of parents and grandparents; hopefully we are setting and example to my children by giving back. There are challenges to growing up affluent, but with that privilege there is a responsibility to give back to the community.

How should Yeshiva University students give back while they are still in school?

I think CJF programs set a perfect example. Giving is a habit. Like any habit, if it feels good you are going to keep doing it. If you are teaching a child in a school in the Negev and you see progress in the child—you see it gives him self-esteem—you feel good to have made a difference in someone’s life. You don’t give back because it hurts, you give back because it feels good.

What YU does with these service-learning programs is very important. I commend what President Joel and the administration of the university are emphasizing—that we don’t just have to be active community members in our Jewish communities, but we also have to be informed, global, and charitable leaders to make a difference. We try to instill those values at the Vikings. We are proud that all 54 men in our lineup are committed to community service.

Can you give me an example of when you saw direct giving as rewarding?

I was fortunate to be involved in UJA-Federations young leadership cabinet for many years. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to travel to the Soviet Union and hand-deliver Joint Distribution Committee food packages on behalf of the North American community. I saw that this cardboard box with food was the difference between being able to pay the rent or get medicine—to have this $20 food box delivered monthly. Most surprisingly, when we delivered the packages, they put the box aside and just said “thank you for remembering us.” That had an impact on me. Here’s someone that most of the world has forgotten and by being there I was able to make a difference. The dollars we give and the involvement we have means something to someone. It’s not some abstract idea.

Have the economics of giving changed since the Recession?

The economy as a whole has challenged philanthropy as a whole. I still think that people are striving to do well in business but part of life is to give back, and to be connected to the community. There is affluence in the Jewish community. We’ve been blessed financially at this moment in history. With all the issues we’ve had in the past few years, there are still means of making this world a better place. The real challenge is maintaining the motivation to make a difference in the world. As long as people continue to feel philanthropy experientially, charitable giving will be in good shape. The means are there; we need to maintain the motivation and the sense of responsibility.