July 8, 1824, is the birthdate of Kalonymus Wissotzky, founder of the tea company that bears his family name, as well as a humanitarian, philanthropist and early supporter of Zionism. The Wissotzky firm, founded by Kalonymus in 1849 in Moscow, is today based in Tel Aviv, and controls some three-quarters percent of the Israeli tea market – and remains, to this day, in family hands.
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Kalonymus Zeev (Wolf) Wissotzky was born in Zagare, in northern Lithuania. His father was the owner of a small business.
Bribing army guards to do good
The son received a traditional Jewish education, and when he married, at age 18, with the support of his wife’s parents, he began studying at the prestigious Volozhin Yeshiva, but had to stop when he became ill. Later, he studied with Rabbi Israel Salanter, the founder of the Musar movement, which emphasized ethical behavior in addition to Torah study.
Under the influence of Salanter, who was also a native of Zagare, he decided to devote his life not only to Torah study, but also to both hard work and to good deeds, and resolved that 10 percent of his future income would be directed to charity.
Before entering the world of business, Wissotzky tried his hand at farming, joining a Jewish agricultural colony established by the Russian government near Dvinsk (modern-day Daugavpils, Latvia). When it became clear he could not make enough to support his family, he moved to Moscow – which is where he began trading in tea.
In the evenings and on Shabbat, he undertook , as a special mission, visiting with cantonists – young Jewish men who had been impressed as pre-teenagers into lengthy military service for the czar, and thus were cut off from all Jewish life. Wissotzky would gain entry to their army bases by bribing the guards at army. Once inside, he would track down the Jewish officers and lead them in prayers and in basic Torah study. At Passover, he would supply them with kosher food.
Business went well, and Wissotzky grew the company. By the time of his death, in 1904, he controlled more than one-third of Russian tea market, and was the world’s largest purveyor of the product. His company owned tea plantations in Ceylon (later Sri Lanka) and India, and eventually opened business offices in London, New York, Germany and Canada.
The logic of a New York branch had become clear as the Jewish population of the czarist empire began to flee, in the decades following 1881. While the market for Wissotzky tea may have shrunk in Russia, the tens of thousands of Eastern European Jews who migrated to the United States brought their taste for tea with them.
Funding for Zion
Kalonymus Wissotzky was also an early and active participant in the Hovevei (or Hibat) Zion group, a pre-Zionist movement whose members populated up agricultural colonies in Palestine starting in the mid-1880s. He provided funding for the colonies, and in 1884-85, he visited, with his correspondence from Palestine later being published in book form.
Wissotzky funded a Jewish school in Jaffa, and gave money to the Volozhin Yeshiva, where he had studied. He provided seed money for the Hebrew-language journal Hashiloah – which was edited by the Zionist thinker Ahad Ha’am, who also managed Wissotzky offices, first in Russia and later in London.
When Wissotzky died, on May 24, 1904, it turned out that he had left his entire holdings in the family business, valued at the time at about 1 million rubles, to philanthropic causes. One-tenth of that amount went to the establishment of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, in 1912.
After the Bolshevik revolution, the company was nationalized, and family members moved their operations to other countries. The Palestine branch was opened only 1936, when Shimon Seidler, whose family was connected to the Wissotzkys through marriage, moved from Danzig to Tel Aviv. Today, the company is headed by his son Shalom Seidler, and has expanded to comprise a food conglomerate that produces olive oil, baked goods and more.