Rabbi Charles P. Sherman
February 15, 2013
The generous act of a reclusive, New Jersey farmer reminds us to never underestimate the attachment of even the most marginal Jew.
Who knows when the “pintele Yid” will flare into a flame?
A Miracle Fund
How many of you remember who Eliot Ness was? Interesting how many hands go up. When I was growing up, Eliot Ness was one of my heroes. If you remember, he was an FBI agent, and in those days the FBI was very highly respected. I was impressed because Eliot Ness was absolutely incorruptible – neither threats nor bribes could stop him from doing his appointed task. He was going to get the bad guys no matter what it took. If he couldn’t get them for murder, then he was going to get them for income tax evasion. But one way or another, Eliot Ness was going to get his man. He finally brought down Al Capone.
Now a harder question. How many of you know who Mack Ness was? No one. I’m not surprised, because Mack Ness kept a low profile all his life. I only found out who he was from a story which appeared in the Jerusalem Post several years ago. But Mack Ness deserves to be better known than he is for several reasons, one of which is that he plays a large role in making Israel’s Negev bloom.
Now the rest of the story. Mack Ness was a Jewish farmer who lived all his live on a farm in Watchung, New Jersey. He was a recluse, lived the life of a hermit, never married, had no children, and had nothing to do with the Jewish community or any community until shortly before his death.
Mack Ness had a non-Jewish attorney who took care of his legal affairs and never charged him a penny – for good reason. It seems that when this lawyer was a college student, he rented a room in the farmhouse of Mack Ness. Then the student ran out of money and could not pay the rent. He was about to leave when Ness offered him a deal. He told the young man that he could stay on the farm rent-free for the rest of the time he would be in college and for all the time that he would be in law school. The only condition was that, after he became a lawyer, he would have to give Ness free legal service for the rest of his life.
The young man agreed. Little did he know that Mack Ness would live on into his 90’s and that he would need a lawyer often, because he bought up much of the farmland all around Watchung.
Mack Ness grew vegetables and, as far as most people knew, that was his only source of income. For some reason he did not trust banks, but he did have an account with Fidelity Investments – an account which he maintained for almost 70 years.
When he felt he didn’t have much longer to live, Mr. Ness asked Fidelity how much it would charge to transfer his funds to the State of Israel. Fidelity said it would charge 6%. Mr. Ness felt that was too much, so he looked in the phone book for some Jewish organization that he thought might do it for less. He happened to find the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey. When he called and they told him they would only charge 1% for the transfer, he immediately agreed.
The Federation offered Mr. Ness the services of its accountant, but when he heard that the accountant lived in New York he declined. He was not going to waste money on a long distance call from New Jersey to New York. Instead he went to the Federation’s office.
When Mack Ness entered the office of the Federation and asked if he could see the Executive Director, the secretary called the Director on the intercom and said that a homeless man had just entered the office – what did he want her to do with him?
Fortunately, the Executive Director said: “Let him come in” – and that is how Mack Ness ended up leaving more than $15 million to the Federation. That is the power of working hard on your farm for 70 years, plus the power of compound interest over 70 years.
Mack Ness set only two conditions for his gift. First, the money should go to Israel. And second, a memorial should be established for his parents, his brother, and himself. The Federation was delighted to agree to both conditions, and Mack Ness gave them the $15 million.
The Federation did two wonderful things with this money. The first was to earmark that all the money would go to building up the Negev. You know, to this day, the Negev is an under-populated part of Israel. Russian, Ethiopian, and other immigrants live in small, often poor towns like Ofakim, Arad, Yerucham, and Yokne’am. Yet Israeli President Shimon Peres, like David Ben Gurion before him and like many others, believes that the Negev is the future of Israel. So Peres counseled the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey to direct Mr. Ness’ funds to the Negev.
He advised that the government of Israel wanted to create a new airport in the Negev, and it would be good if the people who worked at that airport could build homes for themselves and their families in that area. Peres told him that Yokne’am had been a forgotten city for many years, but now it was becoming a vibrant science and technology center whose companies export high tech and medical equipment in excess of $3 billion. He told them that much of the world’s newest medical equipment – including new devices for the treatment of cancer – come from this part of the country.
So the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey agreed to create a fund which would enable new immigrants who want to start businesses in the Negev to get loans. So far, according to what I read, the Federation has allocated 85 loans from this fund, and some of the businesses they helped get started have been so successful they have paid back their loans ahead of time. This was the first good thing that the Federation did with Mr. Ness’s money.
The second good thing they did was the name they chose for this fund. They called it “Keren Ness” which in Hebrew has two meaning. The first meaning of course, is the fund, Keren, created in memory of the Ness Family. The second name – remember what “ness” means in Hebrew? – the nun on the dreidel. Ness gadol – a great miracle. Ness means “miracle”, so “Keren Ness” could also mean the “Miracle Fund.”
And that is what I think it really is. Here’s a man who lived alone most of his life, who had little or nothing to do with the Jewish community, a man who never stepped foot in Israel. A man who, when he died, left $15 million as a gift to the State of Israel. How to explain that?
My explanation is that somewhere deep down within the soul of this farmer was what our parents used to call a “pintele Yid.” Somewhere deep within his soul there must have been a spark of Jewishness, a sense of attachment to the Jewish People and its ancestral homeland. And although that spark was dormant for almost all of Mr. Ness’s life, at the end it flared up and enabled him to make this magnanimous gift to Israel.
Certainly one lesson of this story is to never write off any Jew. Never underestimate the attachment of even the most marginal Jew to the Jewish People and to the Jewish way of life. You never can tell when a spark of Jewishness which burns faintly within a soul will flame to life as it did in the soul of Mack Ness. It is indeed a “Keren Ness” – a miracle fund – for no one in their wildest dreams would have ever imagined that this recluse would have $15 million to give away. And no one in their wildest dreams would have imagined that he would give it all to Israel.
I tell you this story tonight because of a connection to the Torah portion for this week. Our Torah portion begins “Vay’daber Adonai el Moshe laymor: Daber el b’nai Yisrael, v’yikchu li trumah may-ayt kol ish asher yidvenu libo tikchu et trumati” – God says to Moses: “Speak to the People of Israel and tell them to bring Me gifts from every person whose heart so moves him.” This commandment, which is found for the first time in this week’s sedra, has reverberated in the hearts and souls of Jews down through the centuries ever since.
God could have told Moses to solicit only the rich people, a technique which many fundraising organizations use. And that probably would have saved Moses considerable effort. But God told Moses to solicit all the house of Israel, not just the rich, to take gifts from all whose hearts moved them to give.
God did that for two reasons. First, so that the entire people – rich and poor and in-between – would feel that the sanctuary belonged to them. And, secondly, you can never tell from who is rich or poor today who may become rich or poor tomorrow.
Ever since this passage in this week’s Torah portion, the Jewish People have been known in every generation as ba-alay tsedakah, as generous givers. Mack Ness, the farmer who lived in Watchung, New Jersey, walked in the footsteps of his ancestors when he created this fund.
I believe that Keren Ness will do much good for the Negev and for the State of Israel, and I sincerely hope that it will serve as a model for many others. May it teach us that miracle funds can be created by many of us, if only we pay attention to the spark of Jewishness which can be found somewhere deep inside us all.
May there be many more Keren Nesses, miracle funds created by us. May the noble tradition of tsedakah – which began in this week’s sedra – continue to live in us, with us, and through us till the end of time. An ethical will which a Jewish father left to his child summarizes this idea.
“Remember to be gentle – with yourself and with others – for we are all children of chance and none can say why some fields blossom and others lay brown beneath the sun. Care for those around you. Look past your difference. Their dreams are no less than yours. Their choices in life are no more easily made.
“And give! Give in any way you can, of whatever you possess. To give is to love; to withhold is to wither. Care less for your harvest than for how it is shared, and your life will have meaning and your heart will have peace.”
This is the point of the opening words of this week’s Torah reading, and this is the lesson to be gleaned from Mack Ness’s gift. From them both let us learn that you and I, like Mack Ness, are capable of making miracle gifts. Not necessarily of money, but surely of self.
Kay t’hee ratzon – with God’s help, may it be so. Amen
– I am grateful to Rabbi Jack Riemer for his
gift of this message and so many others.