Even today, after Donald Trump has already been inaugurated as president of the United States, many pundits are still trying to figure out how it happened. How did the man with the smallest chance of victory manage to win this election, in complete defiance of all the predictions and assessments of the experts, and all the polls that seemed to be against him? In retrospect, there are many explanations for his astounding victory, some of which are more logical, while others are less so.
There is one man, Rabbi Shmuel Wagner, who has no background whatsoever in the media or in political commentary, but who is confident that he knows of at least one reason for Trump’s stunning victory: the zechus of his father.
In an exclusive interview, Rabbi Wagner, mashgiach ruchani of Yeshivas Ohr Yerushalayim in Moshav Beit Meir, shares the incredible story of how Donald Trump’s father, Frederick Trump, built a shul for the congregation headed by his father, Rabbi Yisroel Wagner, and went on to make annual donations of funding for the kehillah and to aid Jewish families in financial distress.
The Rabbi of Trump’s Neighborhood
After Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election, several publications featured a grainy sixty-year-old photograph that depicts Fred Trump, the new president’s father, in a shul in the neighborhood of Flatbush in Brooklyn. The photograph was accompanied by a terse caption that did little to shed light on the background to this unusual picture.
Rabbi Shmuel Wagner is a son of Rabbi Yisroel Wagner zt”l, the rov of the shul in Flatbush where the picture was taken, and he reveals that there is truly an incredible story behind it.
“To give you a little background information about Fred Trump’s generous donation and his special relationship with my father,” Rabbi Wagner says, “let me take you several years further into the past. My father was born in Galicia and was a tremendous illuy. He was a prominent bochur in Belz and was very close with Rav Aharon of Belz. He was about 18 or 19 years old when World War II began. He father was engaged at the time to a daughter of Rav Shraga Feivel Willig, the rov of the city of Buchach in Galicia. When the war began, he and his kallah were both displaced from their homes, and each of them miraculously survived the war. They were reunited after the war, also miraculously, in a displaced persons camp, and they got married in Salzburg, Austria.”
From Salzburg, Rabbi Yisroel Wagner made his way to Bolivia, where he served as the rov of a Jewish community. “At first, my parents received papers for Bolivia,” Rabbi Wagner continues his account. “After he served as a rov there for two years, they came to California, in the United States, in the year 1950. That is where I was born. My father was the rov of a shul in California, but there were no suitable schools for children there, so the family moved to New York, where there were chadarim and yeshivos.”
A few weeks after the Wagner family arrived in New York, Reb Yisroel was appointed to the rabbonus of a residential area belonging to a businessman named Fred Trump, father of Donald Trump. Reb Shmuel says, “Fred owned 31 residential buildings in the area, with many apartments for rent. It was an area on the outskirts of Flatbush, near the beach. Most of the tenants in those apartments were Jews, and almost all of them were irreligious.”
A Shul in a Parking Garage
Despite the fact that most of the local residents were not frum, they took an interest in Rabbi Wagner’s shul. “There was a minyan in the shul as soon as it opened,” Rabbi Wagner recalls. “There were Jews from Europe there, and they cared about davening in a shul. The shul operated in a parking garage of one of the buildings, and my father received the position of rov through a relative.
“The shul began with thirty members, but it experienced tremendous growth in just a few years, to the point that it came to serve hundreds of families. Many of the mispallelim were not religious, but they were very much attracted to the shul, to my father, and to the warmth that he radiated to them. They loved the experience of the shul and listening to my father’s divrei Torah. And he, with his kindhearted manner and his trademark warmth, taught them Torah and chassidus, at least to some degree.”
At some point, the shul’s membership grew to the point that the facility was no longer large enough to house the congregation. It was understood that a shul needs to have a proper building in order to function. “My father had an idea,” Rabbi Wagner recalls. “He offered to approach Fred Trump, whom he didn’t know personally, even though Trump was his landlord. He hoped that he could use his wisdom to convince Trump to give him a building for his shul. He thought that he might influence his landlord by explaining that Jews, who were Trump’s largest group of customers, need a shul near their homes. He also knew that Fred Trump was a man of faith, and he was likely to relate to the request.
“Thus, my father’s request appealed both to Trump’s emotions and to his shrewd business mind. And it worked. My father and Fred both understood that a kehillah that revolved around a shul would be a community whose members lead a proper spiritual lifestyle, and his business would benefit from that. My father managed to reach Fred Trump’s heart. Trump was very moved by the idea my father expressed and the two became close friends. Fred proceeded to donate a piece of real estate for the shul, and he even made a very generous donation so that a magnificent shul building could be built.”
According to Rabbi Wagner, not only did Fred Trump donate the plot of land where the shul was built and cover the expenses of the construction, but he also attended the ceremony at which the cornerstone was laid. “Fred was very moved by my father’s speech at the ceremony. He was highly impressed, and he became my father’s close friend. They met again and again, and over time they developed a close relationship. Trump viewed my father as a holy man and a great sage. He used to call him ‘my rabbi.’
“As I mentioned,” Rabbi Wagner continues, “the president’s father was very devoted to his Christian faith. So in addition to the business aspect of the shul, which he viewed as a very worthwhile move to benefit his Jewish tenants, he also put his whole heart into it. Over the years, my father had an official meeting with him once a year, in addition to the many other times they saw each other. At each of those official meetings, Fred would make a generous donation to the shul. In fact, most of the funding that maintained the shul came from Fred Trump.
Rabbi Wagner adds that over time, Fred Trump’s donations grew progressively more generous. “Sometimes, my father would tell him about various Jewish families in the area who were needy, and he would give large sums to help them as well.”
What motivated a non-Jewish businessman to make such large charitable donations to needy Jews? “He was devoted to my father,” Rabbi Wagner asserts. “He admired him deeply, and he used to ask his opinion on many things. He was very impressed by the fact that my father, a chassidishe Jew from Belz in Europe, became the rov of a more modern congregation and inspired many Jews to keep Shabbos and even to become fully religious.
“In our area, there was also a Talmud Torah, a school for Jewish studies that was held after classes were over in the public schools. Fred Trump used to donate large sums to that institution as well. He was a very pleasant person with a very kind heart. Fred was also very serene and delicate. He was responsible for the beginning of Donald’s career.”
When Donald Worked in the Laundry Room
Rabbi Wagner has vivid recollections of Fred Trump’s son, a wild, blond-haired youth. “Donald’s father left him and his brother an inheritance of over a billion dollars. In effect, Fred was the one who launched his son’s business career. I still remember going to shul with my father for Shacharis early every Sunday morning. The laundry room, where all the tenants washed their clothes in coin-operated machines, was in the basement of the building. And do you know who collected the money from those machines in the mornings? Donald Trump and his brother!
“Donald was Fred Trump’s second son. I remember him from the age of about 14 or 15, with his wild shock of blond hair and his endless reserves of energy and drive. His father used to send him to collect the money from the laundry machines. Fred taught his children from a very early age to take responsibility; he gave them no breaks. Donald may have been wild as a youth, but his father raised him well.”
Rabbi Wagner will never forget the respect that his father, Rabbi Yisroel Wagner, received from Fred Trump. “His respect for my father was incredible. He was a fine person with a generous heart. I have no doubt that that zechus helped Donald Trump, who was always very respectful of his own father and obeyed him in everything.”
The son of “Trump’s rabbi” shares another interesting anecdote, from about two years ago. “My mother, who passed away about ten months ago, was called ‘the rebbetzin’ by Fred Trump. Two years ago, we celebrated her ninetieth birthday here in Eretz Yisroel. In honor of the occasion, we sent an invitation to Donald Trump. We wrote to him about my mother, and we told him that we had known his father and we remembered him from his childhood. We asked him to write us back with a happy birthday message for my mother. To our surprise, he remembered the shul, and he sent us a very warm message, along with a picture inscribed for my mother.”
During the election campaign in New York, Donald Trump told the Jews of the city that his father had built a shul there. He remembered the location well, and he recalled the work that his father had sent him to do in the residential buildings of the Jewish neighborhood.
Rabbi Wagner, did you ever meet Fred Trump?
“I was very close with my father, and I helped him with everything having to do with the shul. I learned in the Mirrer Yeshiva in Brooklyn, but every Sunday I davened with my father in the shul, at his request. On a few occasions, I also joined him when he went to meet with Fred Trump.”
What did Fred say?
“Well, as I said, he was a man of faith. He used to tell us over and over, ‘I believe in G-d.’ He also used to say that in his eyes, my father was the epitome of what a religious clergyman should be like. Fred was a very moral person, and he worked hard to teach his children to be responsible, moral, and hardworking.”
In terms of Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential elections, Rabbi Wagner has no doubt as to the reason. “This is certainly the reason for Donald Trump’s zechuyos,” he asserts. “This explains his shocking victory in the elections in the United States. I have no doubt of it. His father had the zechus of paying for a shul to be built and maintaining it for years. He gave money to many struggling Jewish families, and he gave great honor to the rov of the shul and to Jews in general. Donald has zechus avos, and that is what has brought him to the White House.”