Observer Publishes Hit Piece on Wilf Family
L-R Zygi and Mark Wilf; Jared Kushner
In an exposé titled “Big Bad Wilf: Did Zygi’s Stardust Take It All Too Far?,” the New York Observer takes a deep look at the Wilfs, a prominent New Jersey-based Jewish real estate family. The New York Observer is owned by the scion of another prominent New Jersey real estate family, Jared Kushner. Perhaps best not to invite them both to the same party anytime soon.
Here are some highlights
The reputation and fortune of one of the Northeast’s leading builders is in jeopardy. Zygmunt, Mark and Leonard Wilf, owners of Garden Homes and the Minnesota Vikings, are facing financial pressure and public approbation from the recent order of a Morristown court. The judge, after a two-year trial, declared emphatically: “They robbed their partners!” The Wilfs now have to pay those partners at least $84.5 million. The court’s findings also have Minnesota taxpayers questioning the decision to give the Wilfs $498 million for a new Vikings stadium.
Even if the Wilfs retain their wealth, the family’s cherished reputation and privacy, carefully built and protected for nearly 60 years, have been demolished.
This is a story about building a multigenerational fortune while staying out of the spotlight. For the Wilfs, public exposure has not come from hundreds of thousands of people buying or renting homes, apartments and shops. It has not come from decades of enormous profitability. It didn’t even come from the exposure of underhanded business practices, with a nearly $85 million judgment barely registering in the backyard of the world media center. The Wilfs brought on most of the curiosity, resentment and infamy when they tried to get a cheap deal on a place in Minnesota.
To understand the Wilf empire, you have to know a bit about the phenomenon of Holocaust builders, the class of survivors who emigrated to America just after World War II and literally built the Northeast suburbs. In the 1950s, families with names like Wilf, Zuckerman, Pantirer, Halpern (no relation to the plaintiffs in the New Jersey case), Burstyn, Salsitz, Pomerantz and Kushner transformed New Jersey from farmland into the suburban idyll that’s still recognizable today. (Disclosure: The Kushner family owns The New York Observer.) These men, known as “greeners,” worked constantly, donated generously and planted roots from which sprang thriving Jewish communities. They also largely stayed out of the limelight, having fled a world in which attracting the attention of the authorities could be a death sentence.
An article in the New Jersey Jewish News that interviewed Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum speculated, “Survivors learned to take risks in life … so they were not daunted by the risks inherent in the building industry. Add to that the natural desire to acquire the American Dream at its hour of greatest cultural relevance, and the stage is set.
The Wilf family exemplified that spirit and success. At the outbreak of World War II, the Russians deported the family from Jaroslaw, Poland, to a Siberian labor camp. Oscar Wilf, his wife, Ella, and sons, Harry and Joseph, survived the war. Daughter Bella perished in the Warsaw Ghetto. Thwarted by pogroms from returning to their home, they made their way to the American occupied zone of Germany in 1946. In 1950, the family settled in the United States.
It is undisputed that the Wilf family fortune is vast and the family has used its cash to donate generously to Jewish charities and educational institutions. The Wilfs are major supporters of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority. They were the largest contributor to Yad Vashem’s Holocaust History Museum. Their contributions to New York University include the Wilf Family Department of Politics and Wilf Hall at NYU Law School. Their support for Yeshiva University is so significant that one of its four campuses is called the Wilf Campus.
According to a March 2013 Form 990 filed with the IRS, the private Wilf Family Foundation made 120 contributions, gifts and grants in the year ended Oct. 31, 2012. The beneficiaries of more than $7.3 million included New York University ($2,000,000), Yeshiva University ($1,012,500), NYP Weill Cornell Medical Center ($936,000), Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey ($851,250), American Society for Yad Vashem ($325,180), United Jewish Appeal ($261,000) and Newark Academy ($250,000). The foundation’s assets totaled more than $112 million. The family also donated $100,000 toward Hurricane Sandy relief.
In a New York Times profile of Jared Kushner, a former Observer editor recalled the problem Kushner has with publishing negative stories.
Kyle Pope, who edited the newspaper until he left in February over what he called irreconcilable differences with Mr. Kushner, said of his former boss: “The thing that he never got his head around is that you can write a negative story on someone and still be powerful in those circles. The paper can run a negative story, and it’s not going to diminish his power. In fact, it would probably increase his power. He thought you had to write nice stories about people you might run into.” Mr. Pope said he left on his own terms and continued to be paid; Mr. Kushner said he fired him.