Mr. Klal Yisrael

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The precondition for the acceptance of the Torah, which we will be experiencing again in a few days, was that the Jewish people first achieve the status of “k’ish echad b’lev echad ­– as one man with one heart.” In our ever more fragmented world, with Jews increasingly defining themselves in terms of various subgroups, it becomes ever harder to imagine that state. Even within the religious world, there are ever proliferating divisions.

Klal Yisrael consciousness, the awareness of all Jews as part of one body, is ever more attenuated. Even when we pay lip service to the concept of Klal Yisrael, we often do so in the manner of the old Marxists. For them, the proletariat represented the universal class, upon whose advancement hinged the salvation of mankind; and for us, the advance of the interests of our particular group represents the salvation of Klal Yisrael. We easily convince ourselves that the interests of our particular group, and those interests alone, are synonymous with the interests of Klal Yisrael.

There is one man, however, who embodies for me Klal Yisrael consciousness in our time: Kurt Rothschild, an octogenarian, short of stature and long on influence. Kurt is not a demonstrative man: I would never think of greeting him with a kiss, as I do many less close friends, and not just because of the nearly thirty year age difference between us. But that lack of outward expression only hints to the depth of his inner passion. He burns with a desire to help Jews, both the collective Jewish people and every individual Jew.

Kurt retired from all his business activities over twenty years ago, and since then has devoted himself to helping his fellow Jews with more energy than far younger men devote to making money. He is constantly on the lookout for new projects in which to become involved, and if he sees a communal need, whether in his hometown of Toronto or in Eretz Yisrael, that is not being addressed, he is always prepared to launch his own initiative.

He has, in the words, of one long-time Toronto associate, “an indefatigable, almost driven, need to do good.” Howard English, a vice-president of the Toronto Federation, says, “Everyone knows that Kurt will never turn down anyone with genuine needs. Either he will provide financial support or ask his vast network of friends and contacts to do so – usually both.”

I first met Kurt around fifteen years ago, when SULAM, a Vizhnitz-run school for developmentally delayed children, at which my wife was the social worker, had a request stuck in Jerusalem’s bureaucratic labyrinth. A friend told me, “Kurt Rothschild is in town. He never says no and he knows everybody.” I found out that was true, and in short order SULAM had received the approval it needed.

The many friends and associates whom he solicits regularly for a long list of projects know that a call from Kurt will cost them money, but they rarely refuse him. Because he almost never says no to anyone else, others are loath to say no to him.

WHAT IS MOST REMARKABLE about Kurt’s largesse with his time, energy, and money is the spectrum of his beneficiaries. Though he is the chairman of World Mizrachi, and firm believer in the Torah Im Derech Eretz approach, in which he was raised in his native Germany, he is prepared to put aside all theological differences until the coming of Mashiach. The unity of Klal Yisrael almost invariably trumps any other principle in his book.

The recipients of his assistance range from hesder yeshivot and other national religious institutions in Israel to a wide range of chareidi institutions in both Israel and Toronto and the local Chabad yeshiva. He is a major supporter of outreach programs ranging from national religious to to Chabad to chareidi, because he knows that no one program is suited to each of the millions of Jews today who are unaffiliated and almost totally ignorant of their traditions.

According to Dov Friedberg, who has worked together with Kurt on many projects in Israel and Toronto, most of which primarily benefit the chareidi community, “He is into good people and good management, and the color of their yarmulke does not matter. As long as someone has a desire to benefit the Jewish people and a plan for doing so, Kurt is eager and excited to help.”

He is also active in a host of general communal organizations in Toronto and sits of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency. In all these organizations, his focus is on Jewish education and initiatives designed to buttress Jewish identity among Jewish youth. The stronger young peoples sense of belonging to the Jewish people, he believes, the more receptive they will be to the ultimate source of Jewish identity – the Torah.

Because of his Klal Yisrael approach, Kurt’s influence extends far beyond the specific projects in which he is involved, and is felt in the very tenor of Toronto Jewish life. I had a taste of that influence on my first visit to Toronto, when Kurt arranged for me to speak on a Sunday morning in a Mizrachi-affiliated shul and in the evening at the local Agudah shul. I cannot think of another city in North America where that would have seemed so natural or another individual who could have so effortlessly made the arrangements. Because of the deep respect and affection in which he is held by all segments of the Toronto Orthodox community, Kurt is the ideal mediator whenever there is a hint of communal strife.

Through his active involvement in the UJA of Greater Toronto, Kurt has served as an ambassador for the Orthodox community and raised the image of Orthodox Jews in the general community. As a result of his efforts, the Toronto Federation is more sensitized to the needs of the Orthodox community and supportive of Orthodox education than almost any other Federation in North America. The local Federation has also joined Kurt as a partner in the Netzarim Fund on behalf of the families evacuated from the Gaza Strip in 2005.

With a few more Kurt Rothschilds, the vision of k’ish echad b’lev echad would be far closer to realization.

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1 Response

  1. mycroft says:

    The author certainly knows more about R Yaacon than I do-butI have heard that when Rav Yaacov ZT”L was a Rav in Toronto he had warm dealings with the then Hapoel Mizrachi schul. There was not even the attacks betwwen Reform and Orthodox Rabbis. Of interest is the late Reform Rabbi Plaut would refuse to marry anyone who had a civil divorce without a get-not because he believed like we do that a get is necessary-but as achdus with Klall Israel-he wanted Jews to remain one people and to be able to marry each other. Of course, the Orthodox Rabbis didn’t call him a fake they would state simply that sadly in good faith he does not accept halacha but never attack the person as a Rasha etc.
    Decades ago when Toronto had fewer Orthodox Jews-one could find those who could simultaneously go to Camp Agudah and go to a day school where the vast majority of students were not shomer shabbos. Mr. Rothschilds comes from that generation. My impression is as the number of day schools has increased and each attracts a more specific segment of the Jewish population a lot of that unity has disappeared.
    It is well known that there are other Orthodox families that at least at one time were major givers to some Orthodox causes who would not give to all Orthodox causes-but would give to secualr causes like an Art Museum. I believe I read in a book that Rothschild was furious at such behavior