Honoring Kurt Rothschild at 100

Published in The Jerusalem Post, November 27, 2020; and in Israel Hayom, November 29, 2020.

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The president of the World Mizrachi movement, Kurt Rothschild, is one of the most indefatigable and loyal soldiers the Jewish People has been blessed with over the past century. How many philanthropists are there in the Jewish world whose worldview and involvements are so broad, and who are still active at age 100?

The writer with Kurt Rothschild, March 2019.

Two weeks from today, on the first day of Chanukah, Kurt Rothschild will mark his 100th birthday, G-d willing. It will be a day of celebration for one of the sharpest, most indefatigable, and loyal soldiers the Jewish People has been blessed with over the past century.

Until the coronavirus pandemic hit earlier this year, the president of the World Mizrachi movement reported for duty in his Jerusalem office every day to preside over a lifetime of philanthropic and community activities. Every institution in the Religious Zionist world, from the poorest to the most prominent, has benefitted from Kurt’s counsel and assistance.

Everybody calls him “Kurt,” not Mr. Rothschild. He would not have it any other way. Kurt is modest beyond imagination, a model of respect for all Jews and towards all Jews, the deepest believer in Klal Yisrael – the unity of the Jewish People, and the greatest practitioner of kol Yisrael arevim zeh lazeh – all Jews are responsible for one another.

It is not at all an exaggeration to say that Kurt is beloved and broadly respected like few other men in today’s Jewish world. What I can put to pen in this short column is miktzat shivcho befanav, just a small expression of admiration without causing him to blush too much.

Born in Germany in 1920, his parents sent him in 1937 to England, and in 1940 he was banished by the British to Canada (along with thousands of other German refugees), where he was interned for 18 months behind barbed wire. After studying electrical engineering in Ontario, he began a business career marked by scrupulous honesty alongside energetic leadership of the religious Zionist community.

Kurt often speaks of the nes min haShamayim, the miraculous establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, which he remembers well, including the dancing of joy in the streets of Montreal and Toronto.

For more than 50 years, he has been a philanthropic pillar of several key religious Zionist institutions in Israel like Yeshivat Hakotel (and many other hesder and Bnei Akiva yeshivas), the Jerusalem College of Technology (Machon Lev), Shaarei Zedek Medical Center, and Bar-Ilan University.

In recent years, he has devoted a great deal of attention and concern for young communities in Israel’s periphery, including towns established in the Negev where many of the Israelis displaced by the Gaza expulsion have sought to rebuild their lives anew. He also has been very helpful to Jewish educational initiatives in former Soviet Union countries.

Kurt also believes in the importance and value of being centrally involved, as an Orthodox Jew, in general community frameworks and institutions. This led him to lifelong activity in the United Jewish Appeal-Jewish Federation of Greater Toronto, Canadian Zionist Federation, Canadian Jewish Congress, Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, Jewish National Fund, Israel Bonds, Jewish Agency for Israel, World Zionist Organization, and more. He was instrumental in helping Jewish day schools across Canada access Jewish community funding sources.

At the same time, his generosity of time and purse extends across the Jewish spectrum to include secular and haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) institutions. How many philanthropists are there in the Jewish world whose worldview and involvements are so bigheartedly broad?

And how many philanthropists in the Jewish world will raise $100,000 in a matter of hours for any number of diverse projects just by calling a few close friends? When Kurt believes in a project, be it help for farmers or construction of a new synagogue, he gets it done pronto, personally.

KURT IS AN ARDENT believer in the synthesis ideologies of Hirschian Judaism (Torah im derech eretz, religious commitment alongside secular activity) and Religious Zionism (Torat Yisrael, Am Yisrael, Eretz Yisrael, combining commitments to G-d, the People, and the Land of Israel).

The yawning and growing gap between Torah-true Jews of the Religious Zionist (Mizrachi) and haredi persuasions remains one of Kurt’s gravest regrets. It pains him to see the lack of mutual recognition that plagues these communities, especially the disdain expressed by haredi leaders towards the Torah giants of the Mizrachi world. Ever since he and his wife of 70 years, Edith, made aliyah from Toronto in 2012, Kurt has sought to bridge the divides.

Kurt always has been in direct contact with Israel’s leaders. He regularly faxes them his views on issues of the day, and they almost-always respond to Kurt – from the late Shimon Peres to Binyamin Netanyahu and everybody in between.

Mainly, these letters have focused on the importance of settlement throughout the land of Israel and the dangers of unilateral concessions to the untrustworthy Palestinians. He also has written frequently on the importance of Jewish unity, which to Kurt means meaningful and respectful dialogue but also holding to principle on issues like conversion and army service.

EVERYBODY WILL TELL you that Kurt is a loyal friend who remains committed to projects and relationships for decades, and he is a reliable ally for young leaders in whom he invests trust. That is how I came to know him personally.

The Rothschilds and my grandparents, the Rosenfields, served together as early leaders of the Mizrachi movement in Canada. My esteemed uncle, Jerry Rosenfield, succeeded Kurt as president of Mizrachi Canada too.

Kurt took me directly under his wing when I studied at Yeshivat Hakotel some forty years ago. He became a professional mentor when I started my career in Zionist lobbying at the Canada-Israel Committee (while he was president of the Canadian Zionist Federation). He stood resolutely behind me through my years as spokesman of Bar-Ilan University. He backed me when I and several colleagues established the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.

He honored my wife and me with his presence at our chanukat habayit (home dedication party) in Nof Ayalon 25 years ago, and his participation in the bar mitzvah celebrations for my sons. He had a bracha (one of the seven key wedding blessings) under the chuppa of my eldest son three years ago. Kurt’s loving concern and wise counsel to me has been evident throughout.

One of my greatest privileges has been praying with Kurt on Yom Kippur at Yeshivat Hakotel in Jerusalem’s Old City, almost every year for the past 25 years. When he was more agile and could climb the many steps from/to the Jewish Quarter, Kurt and I and the late Dr. Michael Levenstein would “go down” together to the Kotel (the Western Wall), after Kol Nidrei and Maariv, for late night private time with G-d.

These were magical experiences. The Kotel was mostly empty, a mild and tangibly spiritual breeze would blow, and Kurt was free from phone calls and endless appointments. We would say Tehillim (Psalms) together, and then Kurt would reflect on life and Jewish history. I cherish those conversations.

Even today, nearing 100 years of age, Kurt still directs many philanthropic endeavors through his hardworking assistant and family members. He still studies Torah every day. He remains a clarion clear voice for Zionist steadfastness and Jewish unity.

It almost seems like Psalm 95 is directly speaking of Kurt: “Righteous men bloom like a palm tree and flourish like a Lebanese cedar planted in the Lord’s home, thriving in the courts of our G-d. In old age they still bear fruit, fresh and rich, attesting that the Lord is upright, my Rock, in whom there is no wrong.”

May Kurt and Edith enjoy the best possible health, and continued satisfaction from their manifold good deeds and many great-grandchildren… ad meah ve-esrim, into their 120th year!

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David M. Weinberg is a think tank director, columnist and lobbyist who is a sharp critic of Israel’s detractors and of post-Zionist trends in Israel. Read more »
A passionate speaker, David M. Weinberg lectures widely in Israel, the U.S. and Canada to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. He speaks on international politics and Middle East strategic affairs, Israeli diplomacy and defense strategy, intelligence matters and more. Click here to book David Weinberg as a speaker