10 Things You Need to Know About… Kalonymus Ze’ev Wissotzky

Merchant and philanthropist

1. Kalonymus Wissotzky was born in 1824 in Zhagare in the Kovno province of Lithuania. As a young man, he attended yeshivot in Volozhin and in Kovno. It was during this time, influenced by his studies with the Salanter rabbi, that he resolved to dedicate ten percent of his income to charity.

2. Having tried, but failed, at farming, he moved to Moscow and established a tea company. This was either in 1849 or 1858, depending on which source you believe, but what is certain is that by the 1870s, he had become a major force in tea trading.

3. He owned the concession for the tsar’s entire military operation. He opened branches in New York, London and elsewhere. The Wissotzky Tea Company in Israel today descends from his firm.

4. He was an early and dedicated supporter of Jewish settlement in Palestine. A proponent of Hovevei Zion, he gave money for establishment of neighborhoods in Jerusalem, helped finance a Jewish school in Jaffa, and funded land purchases for Jewish workers. He was a member of the Odessa Committee, which promoted aliyah, and he later gave to the Zionist movement.

5. His support went, as well, to Jewish causes closer to home. He gave help to Jewish soldiers stationed in Moscow, contributed to the Society for the Promotion of Culture among Jews in Russia, provided funding for the yeshiva in Volozhin, and gave his support to the Alliance Israelite Universelle and to ORT (ORT is a Russian acronym for “Society for Trades and Agricultural Labor”).

6. After the pogroms of 1881, he became active in Agudat Ohave Zion and then a member of the central committee of Hovevei Zion. In 1885 he visited Eretz Yisrael and prepared a survey of the general conditions there. His report was influential in the further work of Hovevei Zion.

7. Among his favorite philanthropic interests was Hebrew literature. Ha Shilo’ah, a Hebrew monthly, was initially financed by him. Influenced by his London manager Ahad Ha’Am [see my post of April 24, 2013], in 1894 he tried to foster the publication of a Hebrew encyclopedia for Jewish studies, but the project fell through; the 20,000 rubles originally intended for it were given instead to foster in other ways the haskalah (the enlightenment) of Jews in Russia.

529_08. In 1898 a collection of his letters was published containing his impressions of the Land of Israel and his activities there.

9. So widely known was his name that during the Russian Revolution an anti-Semitic ditty went around: “Tea of Wissotzky, sugar of Brodsky, and Russia of Trotsky.”

10. He died in 1904. In his will, he left his entire share of the Wissotzky Tea Company – a million rubles – to charity. Of this sum, 100,000 rubles was used for the establishment of the Haifa Technion.

In Tel Aviv, Wissotzky Street is located north of Jabotinsky and west of Derech Namir off Moshe Sharet.

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