Last week's purchase of the Minnesota Vikings NFL franchise for USD 600 million by a group led by Zygmunt Wilf of New Jersey is an epochal event.Alan D. Abbey is Editor and Managing Director of Ynetnews
It's not the first purchase of a major league sports franchise by a Jewish businessman. Some of the U.S.'s, and now world's, leading sports teams are owned by Jewish moguls. In fact, Malcolm Glazer's recent purchase of storied English soccer (football) team Manchester United received far more publicity - most of it unfavorable. Glazer, who already owns an NFL franchise, rankled British sensibilities by his hostile takeover of the team, one of the world's most valuable.
Entrepreneur Robert Kraft, who has made his mark with the New England Patriots, has secured his name in Jerusalem, too, by dropping about USD 500,000 to cover a community soccer field with artificial turf.
But Wilf's purchase stands out because it is by far the most public step ever taken by the secretive family of Orthodox real estate developers and Holocaust survivors. I hesitate to say he is the only second-generation Holocaust survivor to be a major sports franchise owner, but he is certainly one of the few who have willingly stepped so far out into the public eye.
The Wilf family got its start in the U.S. when remnants of it arrived after surviving the Holocaust. In the post-War era they moved into the real estate business. By the time I encountered them in New Jersey in the late 1980s they were already moving from owning low-rent apartment complexes to developing upscale condominiums throughout the state.
I scored a rare interview with Zygmunt Wilf and one of his cousins in 1989 because I had discovered just how widely they had spread their investments and how closely tied they were to numerous New Jersey politicians. They shared the almost pathological need for privacy of many Holocaust survivors and "2G's" (the "second generation" - children of survivors), and were reticent to the extreme about their business activities.
I couldn't adequately determine the full extent of their holdings, as they were masterful at remaining low-key and private. I subsequently advised Forbes magazine informally for the next few years as its researchers attempted - and failed repeatedly - to place the family on its Forbes 400 list of the richest Americans, although it probably should be there.
In the past 15 years the Wilf family's holdings have grown to include shopping malls throughout the U.S., and its charitable donations to Jewish and Israeli causes have skyrocketed. The Harry Wilf Park, a multimillion dollar project, sits right in the center of Jerusalem, and a younger generation Wilf, Mark, is National Chairman of the 2005 UJA Federation Campaign, and a seat like that doesn't come cheap.
But Zygi's (that's what the sports press is calling him, although early spellings vary) step is the boldest, most "out there" of them all.
The sports and North Country press have been full of stories wondering about his reason for buying the team (My analysis: he can afford it, he loves football, and the New York Giants aren't for sale.), who he will name as coach next year, and whether and where he will build a new stadium for the Vikings (He has mused publicly about building an open-air stadium, rather than another enclosed one, as the Vikes use now, which would subject the players and fans to North Country weather every season.).
It does seem that Zygi is going to attempt to hide in plain sight. He is not going to give too many interviews, and the details of the transaction, apparently cleverly designed for maximum tax advantage, is not going to be easy to suss out.
The pathologies and the psychological makeup of 2G's are extraordinarily complex, and certainly not completely understood. But that a 2G would step so far into the limelight as Wilf has is a remarkable step.
For him, at least, his awareness that he is a resident of and participant in sports-obsessed, celebrity-driven, and wealth-adoring America shows a degree of comfort and acceptance rare in Holocaust survivors and their offspring.