On his way to winning the Democratic nomination for governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Wolf showed that he isn’t afraid to put his money into causes he believes in. But even before he entered politics — spending $10 million of his own funds to run — he’d been a longtime supporter of his local Jewish community.
Wolf, who is Protestant, has been one of the largest fundraisers for the York Jewish Community Center. In addition to chairing a $5 million capital campaign, Wolf has already donated $600,000 to it.
“He impressed me as a real mensch,” said Rabbi Elazar Green, director of Chabad of York and Lancaster. “People think he’s Jewish because he’s so involved with the JCC and he understands Jewish values.”
Wolf and his wife, Frances, are a regular presence at JCC events, according to people involved in the York Jewish community. While that may sound odd to someone who doesn’t live there, in York, that’s not at all unusual. The city only has about 500 Jewish families and 90 percent of its JCC members are not Jewish, according to the organization.
“I’ve always said, ‘In York, Pa., We wouldn’t have a JCC if it was just for the Jewish community,’ ” said Randy Freedman, its executive director. “There are just not enough Jews in York.”
There are different ratios of Jews to non-Jews at JCCs throughout the country but a 90 percent gentile membership is unusual. Freedman said the organization does not see the small number of Jews as a problem but rather embraces the makeup of its membership.
“I love the vibrancy of diversity, and that vibrancy is what I feel every time I walk through the doors of the JCC,” Wolf said in a video for the fundraising campaign.
The title of the campaign is “Welcoming everyone and bursting at the seams,” but that does not mean the JCC is devoid of Jewish character. The center, which has been around since 1910 and mostly served Jews decades ago, organizes Holocaust education programming with local schools. Last year, it absorbed the United Jewish Community of York, a federation-like organization that Wolf had also been involved with, and it now runs Israel-related programming and fundraising.
In addition to the current campaign, Wolf also chaired an effort a few years ago for a new $200,000 playground at the JCC.
“He shares our values like nobody I’ve ever met in the general community,” said Elliott Weinstein, who works in real estate and is a leader in a number of Jewish and non-Jewish organizations in York. “He believes in tikkun olam. I don’t know if he knows what it means, but he believes in it.”
Earlier this month, Wolf’s wife attended a Jewish comedy night at the JCC. The gubernatorial hopeful has also visited the local Chabad.
“He was asking very inquisitive questions about Judaism and Jewish values,” said Green, the rabbi there. “And he really seemed to have a tremendous amount of respect and consideration for Judaism.”
In response to a survey of questions put to candidates before the May 20 primary that Wolf overwhelmingly won with 60 percent of the vote, the York businessman said he would work to strengthen the state’s ties with Israel “through trade missions and the creation of a high-tech exchange program" if he won the November election against incumbent Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett.
Wolf, who focused much of his campaign on the crisis in funding for public education, was the only Democratic candidate to question the state’s tax credit programs that help middle and low-income families send their children to private schools. The state’s Jewish federations, Orthodox community and Jewish day school leaders have been strong advocates of the programs.
“As governor, I will take a look at all of the state’s tax credits to ensure we are not just rewarding special interests,” he wrote. “I do not think that public tax dollars should be diverted from our public schools to create a back-door voucher system. I will take a close look at” the tax credit programs “and examine how they impact public education funding.”