Richard Wagner recalls his father, Harry, having the last word at a family seder years ago at the home of Richard’s sister.
The Wagner clan had just completed reciting the story of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt, when Harry closed his Hagaddah, looked up at his relatives and progeny and declared, “And that’s why we have to buy Israel bonds.”
“He was serious,” Richard said. “That story shows the essence of the man.”
Harry Wagner not only practiced what he preached when it came to devotion to Israel, tzedakah and service to the community, but he also took care to ensure that those values were instilled in future generations of Wagners.
In recognition of the family’s enduring contributions to Jewish Pittsburgh and beyond, the Wagners were presented with the PNC Community Builders Award by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh at its King David Society Reception and Annual Thank You Event, held at Congregation Rodef Shalom on Tuesday, May 19.
“For 70 years, the Wagners have been a Pittsburgh Jewish community institution, defining philanthropic engagement for four generations,” said Sy Holzer, president and CEO of PNC Bank, who presented the award. “They are deserving of this honor in every way.”
Harry, who helped run the family business, the Wagner Agency, devoted much of his life to Jewish organizations locally as well as on a national level.
“My great-uncle Harry started our family tradition of tzedakah and participation through leadership in the Jewish community,” said Jimmy Wagner, who now serves as president of the Wagner Agency.
Beginning in the 1940s, Harry became deeply involved in the Zionist Organization of America, Israel Bonds and Congregation Beth Shalom. He served as president of the Jewish Home for the Aged and was instrumental in establishing the senior living facility Riverview Towers Apartments.
Harry’s son, Richard, said he was raised with the notion that it is critical to support the community.
“My dad was involved in all the Jewish organizations, and he always believed that you give to those less fortunate first,” Richard said. “And he walked the walk.”
“That generation grew up with the creation of Israel, and my dad’s heart was in that and in the synagogue,” Richard continued. “And it permeated down. That’s how I was raised, and I believe in it, too. Our generation certainly benefited from their hard work.”
Richard took the lessons of his father to heart. He has chaired the Overseas Allocations committee and the Young Leadership Development committee of the Federation, and served on the board of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh. Like his father, he has continued to support Israel. He has been actively involved with Israel Bonds and was the recipient of the Israel Bonds Financial Division Award.
Arnold Wagner, one of Harry’s nephews and Jimmy’s father, has likewise devoted himself to Jewish causes throughout his lifetime. He has traveled to Israel 26 times and has been involved with the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish National Fund and the humanitarian organization B’nai Zion.
“I was invited twice to the U.N.,” Arnold Wagner recalled. “The first time was during the ruling on ‘Zionism is racism.’ The second time was when that ruling was rejected.”
Arnold is a founding member of the Federation’s Overseas Funding committee, on which he has served for almost 20 years, and he has led many Federation Israel and humanitarian missions, most recently with the Lev Society.
Arnold also served as president of Congregation B’nai Israel and was one of the founders of Adat Shalom. He is a fervent supporter of Israel Elwyn, an organization that trains special needs adults and children for employment, and he serves on that organization’s national board.
“I trained my family to be involved,” Arnold stressed.
That training provided the basis for future Wagner leadership and service.
“My father was never home at night,” said Jimmy Wagner, who recalled that Arnold was out most evenings working on committees and boards on behalf of the Jewish community when Jimmy was growing up. “The normal thing was not to be on the sidelines of the community, but on the forefront, to make the community a better place.”
Jimmy wasted no time in getting involved himself.
Immediately following college, he became a member of the board of the ZOA Pittsburgh division and was appointed chair of the JNF Young Adult Division.
“There is an understanding in my family that we have a responsibility to give back to the community, not only in dollars, but in our time,” he said.
Currently serving as the Federation’s development chair and vice chair of the executive committee, as well as chair of the 2012-2013 Annual Campaign, Jimmy also participates as a member of many other Federation committees. He is active in the ZOA, JNF, Israel Bonds and the B’nai Zion board, as well as at Temple David and Adat Shalom.
“I’m most proud of my work with Federation,” Jimmy said. “We live in such a wonderful and vibrant Jewish community, and being able to participate with professionals and lay leaders is a wonderful opportunity to be engaged. It’s just a turn on for me.”
Jimmy has been a valuable asset to the community, and his fundraising skills have benefited Jewish Pittsburgh enormously, said Dave Sufrin, this year’s Annual Campaign chair for the Federation.
“Jimmy Wagner will make friends with a tree if need be,” Sufrin said. “He is really a very accomplished, skillful and persuasive fundraiser. And he’s been a good leader.”
Other members of the Wagner family that have contributed greatly to Jewish Pittsburgh, Jimmy noted, include Norton Freedel, Harry’s nephew, who was also a partner in the family business and followed his uncle’s example in terms of community service through leadership roles at Congregation Beth Shalom, as well as numerous Federation boards and committees over the years.
“Four generations of Wagners have made an indelible mark on the Pittsburgh Jewish community through their business, philanthropy and volunteering,” said Woody Ostrow, Federation chair. “I can’t imagine what this community would look like without them.”
The Annual Campaign Thank You Event also included the presentation of the Campaigner of the Year Award to Chuck Snyder.
Mosab Hassan Yousef, also known as “The Green Prince,” was the featured speaker for the program. Yousef, the son of a founding member of Hamas, told his story of leaving the terrorist group and becoming a spy for Israel. He is the author of the book “The Son of Hamas,” which was later turned into the film “The Green Prince,” directed by Nadav Schirman.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.