HOW WE CAME TO BE
Before becoming a rabbi, Mark Wildes was on track to become part of the family legal legacy as a high profile attorney. He got his JD from the Cardozo School of Law and a Masters in International Affairs from Columbia University. While on this track, he and his father worked closely with Ed Koch to help “Refusenik” Jews obtain emigration rights when the Soviet Union tried to ban them from leaving.
During this time, he somehow also became active in reaching out to NYC’s less affiliated Jewish community. He became very interested in and troubled by the growing number of young people intentionally distancing themselves from religion and their heritage. So, while in graduate school, he also enrolled in Yeshiva University and became ordained as a Rabbi, not really knowing which way he would go professionally.
And then the moment of truth came, and he had to pick a path.
He thought to himself “NY could probably do without one more Jewish lawyer, but it for sure could use more connectedness, spirituality and community.” So – he went with “Rabbi” and has since dedicated his life to bringing the beauty, warmth, spirituality, wisdom, and community of Judaism to those Jews farthest from it.
It’s been a crazy ride ever since. Rabbi Wildes remembers perfectly the first day MJE opened with a beginner’s hebrew class and 18 people showed up. They then started adding uplifting Shabbat dinners, stimulating classes, and no-Hebrew-necessary Beginners Services. They then added Ski and Spring Retreats, summer trips to Israel and huge holiday parties and events, ultimately building an organization which today draws in over 20,978 attendees and 4,550 unique participants each year to 3 sites in Manhattan (UWS, UES, and Downtown).
In many ways, instead of following the path of his father and brother, he ended up taking after his mother, Ruth Wildes. Rabbi Wildes grew up in Queens, where his mother kept a very open home with an ever expanding Shabbat table. He founded MJE in her memory to mimic the special atmosphere she created with her boundless hospitality.
MJE was established by Rabbi Mark Wildes in August, 1998 in memory of his late mother, Ruth B. Wildes, zichrona livracha, may her memory serve as a blessing.
Together with her husband Leon Wildes, Ruth was a pillar in the Jewish community of Forest Hills, NY where she lived and raised her family. Ruth’s hospitality, kindness and outgoing personality endeared her to all. Her ever expanding Shabbat table, at which friends and strangers were always welcome, became well known in the community.
Ruth’s openness and hospitality ultimately served as the basis for her son’s creation of MJE. As Rabbi Mark remarked: “Growing up in my parent’s home, virtually every Shabbat I saw someone new to the Jewish community at our Shabbat table. My mother’s warm smile and beautiful Shabbat table were so inspiring to those new to the community. It truly served as the impetus for the creation of MJE which reaches out to those with less of a Jewish background and those with less of a connection to the community. I thought, if we could do half the job my mother did in inspiring Jews to the beauty and excitement of Shabbat and Jewish life, we would be achieving something amazing for the Jewish people. And I truly think we have, all in her memory”.