During the most recent Presidential election campaign in the United States, then-candidate Donald Trump delivered a speech in which he recalled how his father, Fred Trump, built a synagogue in New York. He remembered the location well, and he recalled the work that his father had sent him to do in the residential buildings around the Jewish neighborhood near the shul. Rabbi Shmuel Wagner shlita, mashgiach ruchani of Yeshivas Ohr Yerushalayim in Moshav Beit Meir, shares the incredible story of how Fred Trump built a shul for the congregation headed by his father, Rabbi Yisroel Wagner zt”l, and went on to make annual donations to the k’hilah and for many Jewish families in financial distress.
Rabbi Yisroel Wagner survived the Holocaust and made his way to Bolivia, in South America, where he served as the rav of a Jewish community. In 1950, he and his wife moved to California and a few years later to New York, where he became a rabbi in a residential area of Brooklyn, near Brighton Beach. Fred Trump owned 31 buildings in the area, with many Jewish tenants. Despite the fact that most of the local residents were not religious, they took an interest in the new rabbi. Reb Shmuel recalls: “There were Jews from Europe there, and they all cared about davening. The shul operated in the parking garage of one of the buildings, and began with thirty members, but it experienced tremendous growth in just a few years, to the point that it came to serve hundreds of families. They might not have been observant Jews, but they loved the experience of the shul and listening to my father’s Torah classes. And he, with his kindhearted manner and his trademark warmth for every single Jew, taught them Torah and chasidus, at least to some degree.”
Eventually, the shul’s membership grew to the point that the garage facility was no longer large enough to house the congregation. “My father had an idea,” Reb Shmuel recalls. “He offered to approach Fred Trump, the millionaire landlord, although he didn’t know him personally. He hoped that he could convince the man to supply an adequate space for the synagogue. He knew that Fred Trump was a generous soul, a man of faith, and he was likely to relate to the request.”
Rabbi Wagner met with the landlord and his request indeed appealed both to Trump’s emotions and his shrewd business mind. Instantly, the two men hit it off and they became close friends. Rabbi Wagner and Fred both understood that a k’hilah that revolved around a synagogue would be a community whose members lead a proper spiritual lifestyle, and his business would benefit from that. Trump was very moved by the proposed idea and he proceeded to donate a piece of real estate at 723 Avenue Z, which became the Beach Haven Jewish Center, and is open and active to this very day, offering programs for youth and the elderly. He even made a very generous donation so that a beautiful edifice could be built.
According to Reb Shmuel, not only did Fred Trump donate the plot of land where the shul was built and cover most of the expense of the construction, but he also attended the ceremony in 1956 at which the cornerstone was laid. “Fred was very moved by my father’s speech at the ceremony. He was highly impressed, and he became my father’s close friend.” Over time, Fred Trump’s donations grew progressively more generous. Many times, Rabbi Wagner would tell him about various Jewish families in the area who were poor and needy, and he would give large sums to help them out as well.
Later, the Beach Haven Jewish Center housed a local Talmud Torah, a school for Jewish studies that held classes after public school was over. Fred Trump used to donate large sums to that institution as well. He was a very pleasant person with a kind heart, very serene and delicate. He was responsible for the beginning of Donald’s business career.
Reb Shmuel has vivid recollections of Fred Trump’s son, a wild, blond-haired youth of 14 and 15. “I still remember going to shul with my father for Shacharis every Sunday morning. The laundry room, where all the tenants washed their clothes in coin-operated machines, was in the basement of one of the buildings. Fred used to send his son Donald early Sunday to collect the coins from the laundry machines. Fred taught his children from a very early age to take responsibility; he gave them no breaks. Donald may have been wild as a youth, but his father raised him well.”