Minnesota Vikings owner Mark Wilf is the son of Holocaust survivors who stays connected to Judaism. Ken Berger, a sports journalist, interviewed Wilf for Commonpoint Queens of Forest Hills at a Zoom presentation on January 21.
An Orthodox rabbi in Elizabeth, New Jersey, “who had a lot of strength of purpose,” and was “a dynamic individual,” not just in synagogue but in deed and in society, inspired and motivated the young Mark Wilf: “that kind of blending of career and making the world a better place.”
“My grandparents, my parents, were all Holocaust survivors who escaped from Europe, thanks to a combination of tremendous courage and some good luck. They came to America and rebuilt their lives, but they didn’t allow the past to become their only story. They never lost the ability to dream of a better future… They never stopped helping others in need. I grew up watching my parents put these ideas into action.”
Watching football and going to New York Giants games “was our family bond” and “our way of being part of the American scene… I was really brought up with the values of justice, responsibility for others, kindness, and respect for human rights and, bless my family, to become stewards of the franchise of the Vikings now 16 years ago.”
Wilf brings team members and 50 underprivileged youth from Minnesota to the US Holocaust and African American Museums in Washington, DC. The team’s diversity committee tries “to educate our whole organization of players, coaches, and business people.” Alan Page, a Hall of Fame Vikings player turned Supreme Court judge, talks with young players, as does the team’s veteran leadership group. The Vikings had a social justice committee years before George Floyd was killed less than a mile from the stadium by police. Viking players “shared some of their stories growing up in some tough situations right here in the United States. And from that, there’s a common sense that we need to use the platform of devices to make things better.”
When San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick and other players refused to stand for the National Anthem to protest racism, the Vikings players “pulled together.” “We’ve gotten to know each other… We know things aren’t perfect but we’re striving for excellence, and excellence is, yes, on the field and winning. It’s also excellence in the kind of team a community can be proud of.”
The Vikings won’t draft approximately 70-80 players each year “no matter how talented” if they aren’t “a good fit for our team and our community.” They want “the kind of locker room where people want to pull for each other” and “can represent the organization on and off the field.”
“We’re not recognizing that every person who wants to be in the NFL is necessarily a choirboy, but if there’s a situation where there’s a lack of education or understanding, we’ll talk it out” within the organization. “We’re making sure that everyone is always constantly learning new things, getting educated.”
For Wilf, Judaism is “a great value system, especially getting through the kind of year and times we’ve had.” Wilf is Chair of the Board of Trustees of The Jewish Federations of North America and on the Board of Trustees at Yeshiva University. “Many times at meetings, I’ll catch a d’var Torah or a piece of Jewish wisdom.” The family likes going to synagogue where the rabbi is “very keen on putting things properly in perspective.” Wilf feels “so blessed to be Jewish and to be American.”
Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins is “a huge fan of Israel” and very religious, said Wilf. Kirk Cousins’ and Safety Harrison Smith’s signed football jerseys were given away to two raffle winners after the presentation. Education, “giving back and making an impact in the community” have been core values for Wilf.
With the George Floyd protests and the coronavirus pandemic, “[w]e know it’s not us alone, but sports is a big platform and we have to set the right example, very proud of our players. We try to draft the kind of players that not just Minnesota but the country can be proud of.” Some 75 people from Florida, Georgia, Arizona, Ohio, California, and the New York City area attended the Zoom interview.
By David Schneier