Della and Fred Worms
Della and Fred Worms Photo by Courtesy: Worms Family
Text size

The philanthropist Fred Worms, who died on Monday at the age of 91, used to say that if he did not spend at least half of each day attending to the needs of the community, the day had been wasted.

As a benefactor and adviser to major educational, cultural and sporting institutions in Israel, Worms hardly wasted a single moment to improve some aspect of Jewish communal life, said family, friends and colleagues. His handprints can be seen all over Jerusalem in particular, including quite literally, in the cement underneath the B'nai B'rith bridge on Derech Hebron Road, which he helped to build.

"There are many people in this world who have the capacity to give," said Mark Sofer, president of the Jerusalem Foundation, one of Worms' many beneficiaries. "There are far fewer people who actually translate that into day-by-day action. Fred dedicated his resources to the causes he believed in."

After securing his family's livelihood by manufacturing car parts and working in real estate in the UK, where he lived for most of his life, Worms felt a strong urge to "give back to society, and to Jewish society in particular," said his widow Della, a former magistrate who was an active partner in her husband's philanthropic endeavors.

Sitting shiva in the book-lined salon of her elegant Jerusalem apartment, located a stone's throw from the walls of the Old City, Della recalled her husband's passion for Jewish education and the many battles he waged to build newer and better Jewish schools, Hillel houses and student dormitories in the UK and in Israel.

As an example, she described how he began fighting in the 1970s to restructure the Jewish Israel Appeal, as it was then known, in the UK, so that some of the funds collected would be retained to support local programs.

"Even though he was a strong Zionist with daughters living in Israel, he put out the clarion call for many years, saying one must support Jewish educational projects in Britain in order to ensure the continuing existence of the Jewish community that will be able to support Israel in the future," said Della. Today, about 37 percent of the money raised through the renamed United Jewish Israel Appeal remains in the UK.

Worms brought his non-conformist leadership style to Israel, where he lived part of each year beginning in the 1950s. As a member of the Board of Governors at the Hebrew University during the 90s, he proposed a plan to build a modern student complex on Mount Scopus using a BOT (build, operate, transfer ) scheme that would ease financial pressures on the university. The result: the Scopus Student Village, which opened in 2006. The village has had "a profound impact on the lives of the university's students," president of the Hebrew University, Menahem Ben-Sasson, said in a statement.

An avid sportsman - he continued to play tennis and swim well into his 80s - Worms co-founded Kfar Maccabiah in Ramat Gan in 1956 and served as head of the Maccabi World Union from 1982 to 1986. "He saw sport as a way to bring young Jewish people into Judaism, to know about their identity," said Della.

Among the many commendations Worms received over the years are the Teddy Kollek Award for his contributions to the city of Jerusalem, an honorary doctorate from the Hebrew University, and an honorary fellowship (along with his wife) at the Israel Museum. In 1998 he was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II for initiating and building sheltered housing projects for the elderly.

Fred Simon Worms was born into an Orthodox Jewish family in Frankfurt, Germany in 1920. (The family name comes from the town on the Rhine River where his ancestors lived until the 18th century. ) He attended the Samson Raphael Hirsch school, named for the famous rabbi who founded a stream of Orthodox Judaism often referred to as Neo-Orthodoxy.

His parents divorced when he was 10 and, in the absence of a father figure, Fred assumed many familial obligations, including leading the Passover seder. In April 1937, at age 16, Worms was sent by his mother to London, to escape Nazi persecution and study at St. Paul's school. He and Della were married in 1951 and split their time between London and Jerusalem, fully completing their aliyah in March 2009.

'Completely worldly and Jewish'

"He was really an amazing example of a world Jew," said James Snyder, director of the Israel Museum. Snyder cited as examples of Worms' connection "to both European culture and Jewish culture" the museum's European art gallery bearing his name and the installation of the Kadavumbagam synagogue, which Worms arranged to be transferred from Cochin, India to Jerusalem for restoration.

Rabbi Daniel Landes, director of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, remembered Worms as someone who was "completely worldly and completely Jewish at the same time." "He's in a direct line from that Hirschonian school that he went to in Frankfurt, that kind of integrated Orthodox experience in which nothing in the world was foreign to him," Landes said. He added that Worms, who took classes in the Bible and Jewish Thought at Pardes until recently and served on the institute's board of directors, held himself and others to high ethical standards.

"He found total joy in Judaism, but he didn't like it when it was twisted or when it was humorless," he said. "For a yekke [German Jew] he really had a great sense of humor."

Though he did not have a formal university education, Worms had a penetrating mind. For 16 years he corresponded with the eminent British philosopher Isaiah Berlin before the latter's death in 1997. In their letters, the men shared interpretations of Biblical stories, discussed politics and jazz, and debated whether or not the Allies should have bombed the railway lines leading to Auschwitz.

In one letter to Berlin, dated February 14, 1994 and collected in Worms' latest book, "A Worms' Eye View," which was published earlier this year, he neatly summarized his worldview: "I think we have agreed in previous conversations that religion should be practiced in moderation, faith does not bear examination and triumphalism should be taboo."

Worms is survived by his wife Della, three daughters, 11 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.