Remembering Joseph Wilf

Holocaust Survivor Left Lasting Legacy at Yeshiva University

Yeshiva University mourns the death of Joseph Wilf z”l, who passed away on August 3, 2016. Wilf was a generous benefactor, a beloved trustee and a supporter of numerous Jewish causes.

Joseph Wilf
Joseph Wilf

Wilf’s early life was surrounded with the terrors of the Holocaust. Born in Jaroslaw, Poland in 1925, he along with his parents and brother, Harry, were deported to a Siberian labor camp in 1940 where they remained for the duration of World War II; his sister Bella perished in the Warsaw Ghetto.

In 1946, Wilf and his family made their way to the American-occupied zone of Germany, where he met Elizabeth Fisch, also known as “Suzie,” who had spent the war years hiding in the Lwow Ghetto. They married in 1949, and in 1950, they immigrated to the United States.

Four years later, Joseph and Harry Wilf founded Garden Homes, a real estate development company that is now one of the largest in the U.S. In 1964, as a gesture of giving back for a decade of great success, the two brothers established The Wilf Family Foundation, which over the years has contributed to dozens of organizations and Jewish causes, including Yeshiva University.

The Wilf family has been among YU’s most generous philanthropists. In 1990, Wilf and his brother, Harry, a YU Benefactor, established a major need-based scholarship fund for students at Yeshiva College and Stern College for Women. He, his sons Zygmunt and Mark, and his nephew, Leonard A. Wilf, a YU Benefactor, subsequently endowed a second major scholarship fund in 1997 for distinguished undergraduate scholars. In 2002, YU recognized the leadership and support of the Wilf family by naming the University’s Washington Heights campus the Wilf Campus. The family also established a new cardiovascular research center at YU-affiliated Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

“It’s very appropriate that his physical legacy is the Wilf Campus because he was a phenomenally successful builder,” said President Richard M. Joel. “Anyone who knew him will remember someone who was gentle, thoughtful and sensitive, with an impressive commitment to the Jewish people and to the Jewish community, and who believed in life and in other people. That’s a tremendous kind of legacy.”

For his philanthropic and humanitarian endeavors, Wilf was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters in 1990.  In that same year, he was appointed to the Board of Sy Syms School of Business. In 1993, he was appointed a trustee of the University, and in 2004, he became the Board’s vice chairman. In 2008, he was made a Trustee Emeritus.

Daniel Forman, senior philanthropic adviser in Institutional Advancement, said that Wilf believed “the most important action he and his family could take was investing in Jewish students and their education, and YU fit into the mosaic of those beliefs. Sharing his success was his highest priority; he was a lovely, quiet, diffident man, a man of few words but giant steps.”

Ludwig Bravmann, managing director of Oppenheimer & Co., who worked with Wilf on the YU Board of Trustees for many years, expressed this same sentiment, saying that “Joseph was highly intelligent, very devoted and cared particularly deeply about Jewish education. I had great respect for him.”

“It’s wonderful to see the next generation—his sons and nephew, and their children as well—continuing to keep that deep commitment to family, to acts of loving kindness, and to the Jewish community and Israel. That connection is ongoing and always will be,” said President Joel.

YU offers condolences to his wife Elizabeth, a member of the Stern College for Women Board of Overseers and an honorary degree recipient in 2007; sons Zygmunt (married to Audrey) and Mark (married to Jane), members of the YU Board of Trustees and YU Benefactors; nephew Leonard Wilf; and his nine grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

May his family be comforted among all who mourn for Zion and Jerusalem.