We often speak of gedolim who pursue the learning and teaching of Torah as both their vocation and avocation — rashei yeshiva and other great rabbanim. Today (10 Sivan 5772) is the 108th yahrzeit of a role model that may be easier for those of us who have full-time jobs outside of religious work to take life lessons from.
Reb Kalonymus Ze’ev (“Kalman Wolf”) Wissotsky (RKWW) was born in 1824 in Zhagory, in the Kovno district of Lithuania. His father was a shopkeeper; they weren’t poor, but certainly not wealthy either. His parents provided a traditional cheider education, and was married at 18. That’s when his life starts taking an interesting trajectory.
A half-year or so after getting married, RKWW studied for a while in the Volozhiner Yeshiva.
Then he left Volozhin to join a Jewish agricultural colony in Dubno (near Dvinsk). But the land the czar’s government gave the cause wasn’t fit for growing anything.
So, Reb Kalman Wolf went back to the beis medrash, this time to Kovno, where Rav Yisrael Salanter was just starting the Mussar Movement. RKWW was a noted member of Rav Yisrael’s circle, becoming the gabbai of the beis medras “Niviezer”, in a movement that valued service. When Rav Simcha Zisl Ziv, the future Alter of Kelm, was sent off to Reb Kalman Wolf’s hometown of Zhagory to help the local efforts to build a Mussar Kloiz (a house of mussar), Rav Yisrael sent RKWW along to be his chavrusah. One gleans from this that his learning was of a level that could keep up with the Alter’s.
It was during this period of his life (1849) he started up the tea company that still bears his name. The success of that business eventually brings him to Moscow in 1858. Not only did RKWW get a license to live outside the Pale of Settlement, his wealth was such that Czar Alexander III “invited” him to live nearby (where he could be watched). Wissotzky Tea grew into a global firm; by 1904 it followed other Jewish immigrants to New York. In 1907 it spawned the Anglo-Asiatic Trading company, operating out of London. By the time the Soviets took over all Russian manufacturing, the company had also added branches in Poland and Italy. (The factory in Rishon leTzion was his grandson Shimon Zeidler’s idea in 1936, to provide jobs for the yishuv.)
And he knew that his wealth was in trust for the many. In the 1880, when Chovevei Tzion began, he was among their most ardent supporters, and elected to the board at the Katowice Conference (see picture at right). Chovevei Tzion was a proto-Zionist organization most famously associated with Achad haAm (who also hired by Wissotzky Tea to run the Anglo-Asiatic Trading Company) and Leon Pinsker, but was founded by noted religious Zionists, R’ Zvi Hirsch Kalisher, R’ Shmuel Mohliver and R’ Yaakov Reines (who later founds Mizrachi, as a “markaz ruachani — religious center” for the Zionist movement). RKWW gave money to Alliance Israelite in Paris, to HaShiloach, a monthly magazine edited by Achad haAam, and to numerous other Zionist causes. Technion was founded on 100,000 rubles from his estate, out of a total of 1,00,000 granted for Jewish national causes.
And similar amounts of money were also invested in Torah charities in Europe, such as a yeshiva in Byalestok that also provided trade education, and the fund upon which Yeshivas Ponovezh (when it was in Ponovezh) was founded.
Rav Yaaqov Maze”h, the Chief Rabbi of Moscow and fellow Chovevei Tzion activist (and the namesake of a beautiful street in Tel Aviv), records in his memoirs how RKWW came to him once for help figuring out to whom to give his tzedaqah, as ma’aser (a tenth) of his wealth came to around half a million rubles. To give you a sense of how important the decision was, a ruble was backed by 0.514oz of gold, roughly 3/4 of the gold then used to back a dollar. Checking US dollar inflation rates (not gold), we’re talking about donating in one sitting he purchasing power of around $160 million dollars in today’s money.
When they finished deciding whom to give what, Reb Kalman Zev “arose and paced back and forth, his hands on his head, crying out a quote from Chazal: ‘Oy lanu miyom hadin! Oy lanu miyom hatockhachah! — Woe to us from the day of judgement! Woe to us from the day of rebuke!’”
But he wasn’t “merely” a philanthropist who contributed money.
At this point in Russian history, the term served by Jewish boys drafted to be “Cantonists” was at the reduced (comparatively) length of six years of study, 12 of military service, and 3 years of reserves. This is far shorter than the 25 years originally mandated, but still long enough to accomplish the desired goal of Russification — erasing the boys’ ethnic identity and fealty to Torah to make them full members of the Empire.
R’ Kalaman Wolf used his location to their benefit. He opened a clandestine school that held minyanim and classes on Shabbos, smuggled them kosher food, matzah on Pesach, and on Rosh haShanah, they would meet in the woods outside the city for shofar blowing. And many a boy, when released, was reunited with his family through the use of his money and his political contact.
An amazingly successful businessman, a baal middos, who didn’t get caught up in the pursuit and maintenance of his wealth, but utilized his position to be a visionary who cared for the Jewish People’s future in our homeland, learned, and willing to risk his own life to bring Torah to captives. As I said in the opening, a role model from whom one can learn how to be not only holy despite leaving the yeshiva to work, but holy through being a working man.