He was a giant of the generation: The ultimate exemplar of Jewish commitment, Zionist steadfastness, and national unity.
Kurt Rothschild, who passed away this week at age 101, was one of the sharpest, most indefatigable, and loyal soldiers the Jewish People was blessed with over the past century. Hundreds of Jewish communal and Torah-educational institutions around the world benefitted from his leadership and philanthropic activism.
Kurt was a diminutive and ultra-modest man, but a giant in stature; beloved and broadly respected like few other men in today’s Jewish world – no exaggeration! He was 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 the principle that kol Yisrael arevim zeh lazeh – that all Jews are compellingly responsible for one another.
What I can put to pen in this short tribute is merely miktzat shivcho, just a small expression of love and appreciation for his accomplishments and for his friendship.
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 (in New Brunswick) for 18 months behind barbed wire. After studying electrical engineering in Ontario (where he had to repeat several courses because he wouldn’t write exams on Shabbat), Kurt began a business career marked by scrupulous honesty alongside energetic leadership of the Religious Zionist (Mizrachi) community, first in Montreal and then in Toronto.
He intensely believed in the importance 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. He also was very helpful to Jewish educational initiatives in former Soviet Union countries.
For more than 50 years, he was a central philanthropic pillar of several key Religious Zionist institutions in Israel like Shaare Zedek Medical Center, Yeshivat Hakotel (and many other hesder and Bnei Akiva yeshivas), the Jerusalem College of Technology (Machon Lev), and Bar-Ilan University.
He and his wife of more than 70 years, Edith (may she be comforted by this article and be well), made aliyah in 2012. Kurt began to devote a great deal of attention to young communities in Israel’s periphery, including towns established in the Negev where many of the Israelis displaced from Gush Katif by the Gaza withdrawal have sought to rebuild their lives anew.
Until corona hit two years ago, well into his very late nineties, Kurt showed-up every day at his World Mizrachi office in Jerusalem to make and field hundreds of phone calls. He was accessible to every individual and institutional leader across the ideological spectrum, including secular and haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) institutions. In this regard, he was completely color blind.
When Kurt believed in a project, be it help for farmers, handicapped children, or construction of a new synagogue, he got it done pronto, personally. He was the consummate man of action, always eager and excited to help, and he would see each project through to completion.
He could raise $100,000 in a matter of hours, simultaneously, for any number of diverse projects by calling a dozen friends. And when Kurt called, his credibility and sincerity were the definitive seal of quality. No-one could doubt the worthiness of the project, and few could deny him a positive response.
And when he grew infirm over the past two years (only at age 99!), Kurt methodically went through his dockets to pay-out his personal pledges and to ensure continued funding for every project as best possible. (I received one of those caring calls too.)
Kurt was in direct contact with Israel’s leaders. He regularly faxed them his views on issues of the day, and they almost-always respond to him – from the late Shimon Peres to Binyamin Netanyahu and everybody in between. Those letters mostly focused on the importance of settlement throughout the land of Israel and the dangers of undue concessions to the Palestinians.
He also wrote frequently on the importance of Jewish unity, which to Kurt meant meaningful and respectful dialogue but also adherence to principled standards in matters like conversion and IDF service.
In short, nothing distracted this petite but titan of a man from his laser-like focus: to ensure Jewish continuity through Jewish education and through strengthening the State of Israel. Kurt would often repeat his profound belief that Israel was nothing less than a nes min haShamayim, a Divine miracle, and he would reminisce about dancing with joy in the streets of Canada upon Israel’s establishment in May 1948.
Kurt also was devoted to simple mitzvot (ethical and religious commandments), including daily synagogue attendance and daf yomi (Talmud) study. For decades, he would stand at a Bathurst Street bus stop in sub-zero weather in the very early morning hours waiting for a bus, or for a ride, to shul.
One long-time aide told me how proud Kurt once was of his very muddy shoes. That day, Kurt had trudged out in the freezing rain and muck of a Canadian winter to participate in the funeral of kinless man whose name he didn’t even know. Kurt dragged several Toronto rabbis to that nameless person’s funeral too. And for the rest of the day, every prominent person who came to meet Kurt in his office was treated to a mini sermon from Kurt about the splendor of his muddy shoes.
As Kurt’s children emphasize: Such mitzvot were Kurt’s “oxygen.”
KURT WAS A LOYAL FRIEND who remained committed to projects and relationships for decades. Going back to my grandparents, the Rosenfields of Toronto, my family merited decades of friendship with Kurt and Edith Rothschild.
Kurt was a mentor in Zionist activism to me, too, beginning with my professional start at the Canada-Israel Committee (when he was president of the Canadian Zionist Federation), through my time as spokesman of Bar-Ilan University (where he was a principal board member), and beyond. Kurt’s loving concern and wise counsel to me was evident throughout, and he backed that up by participating in multiple Weinberg and Rosenfield family celebrations over the past 30 years.
I also had the privilege of davening (praying) alongside 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 descend together to the Kotel (the Western Wall), after Kol Nidrei and Maariv, for late night private time with God.
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 will forever cherish those long and meaningful conversations with this righteous man on the holiest night of the year. To me, Kurt Rothschild always will be the ultimate exemplar of selfless Jewish commitment, Zionist steadfastness, and national unity.
One of the yeshiva deans who spoke at the funeral said that he was “overwhelmingly jealous” of Kurt – because so many angels of merit, generated by Kurt’s many good deeds, will accompany him to the heavens and testify before God as to his feats. This rabbi also said that Kurt’s mitzvot are now up for grabs. Every one of us is challenged to seize a few of them and drive his legacies forward.
King David must have had Kurt in mind when he wrote (in Psalm 92) that “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.”
[This is an updated version of an op-ed column about Kurt that I published for his 100th birthday. See here.]