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When charity truly begins at home

Dr. Yosef Wosk
Scholar, rabbi and philanthropist Yosef Wosk continues to leave a legacy

As a child, Dr. Yosef Wosk brought a nickel to school and then got a sticker cut in the shape of a leaf. He came back with more coins, eventually collecting enough leaf stickers to fill a picture of a tree.

“I handed the picture to the teacher, and I knew my coins were enough to plant a tree in Israel in my name or the name of someone I chose,” says Yosef. “That was something that really spoke to me as a child. It was a wonderful way to learn about the gift of giving.”

Many decades later, Yosef continues to give to numerous local and global causes.

At Simon Fraser University, he has contributed to the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue (an initiative his father championed), Graduate Liberal Studies and SFU Library, among multiple other projects.

His connection to SFU is long and varied. For 15 years, he served as director of interdisciplinary programs in Continuing Studies, where he initiated Philosophers’ Café (the world’s largest series of café discussion gatherings) and the Canadian Academy of Independent Scholars. He also served as a Shadbolt Fellow, a Simons Fellow and an adjunct professor in humanities. Yosef received an honorary degree from SFU in 2012.

“Working from the downtown campus, I liked connecting with the pulse of the city and being more involved in what was going on with people and in the vibrancy of the city,” Yosef says.

“I celebrate being interested in a lot of different subjects and do my best to look at things and canvas different ways, perspectives and disciplines…and have them speak to and inform one another.”

"I’m rather eclectic!”

To some, that would be an understatement. Yosef holds doctorates in religion and literature, and in psychology, as well as master’s degrees in education and theology. An art collector, poet and heritage conservation advocate, he also served as a congregational rabbi. Before returning to Vancouver, he lived, worked and studied in New York, Jerusalem, Toronto, Philadelphia and Boston.

Such experiences have led to a vast array of philanthropic interests—even within the Library. In 2010, his gift to SFU Surrey saw the Student Learning Commons at that location named in his honour. More recent donations to Special Collections & Rare Books have supported the Perry the Poster Man collection and the Wosk-McDonald Aldine collection (considered by scholars as one of SFU’s signature collections). He also helped save 30,000 DVDs, VHS tapes and Blu-ray discs from Vancouver’s iconic video rental store Videomatica, which are now archived at SFU and the University of British Columbia.

If there is a thread running through his philanthropy, his 2012 honorary degree citation from SFU suggests one possibility—“his commitment to making the true and the beautiful available to all.”

As an educator, Yosef has taught thousands of students and supported dozens of schools. He has contributed to a variety of artistic, intellectual and spiritual causes, while also championing public gardens and parks, tree-planting projects, and more than 400 libraries worldwide.

Yosef’s philanthropy expresses deep respect for tradition, an attribute he learned from his parents, Morris and Dena Wosk. After experiencing antisemitic persecution, his father’s family left Odessa (in Ukraine) in 1928 to begin a new life in Vancouver. His mother’s family also escaped persecution in Pinsk (then Poland, now Belarus) and came to Canada in the mid-1920s.

“They taught us about the practice of giving, which was part of my family as far back as I can remember —and was part of what I learned at school when I saw I could do something good,” says Yosef.

Giving to charity or supporting individuals or donating to certain causes has become very natural to me. It is part of my breath and blood.


A different kind of blue box

In Yosef Wosk’s boyhood home, his parents placed a ‘charity box’ in plain sight. Through the year, each family member dropped coins into a blue-coloured tin box.

“Sometimes, one of us would be in the mood and put some money in the box, and other times we’d do it for the beginning of a holiday,” says Yosef. “It wasn’t about how much or how often we did it. It was the act of giving itself and teaching our responsibility to others.”

Once a year, the charity box was emptied, and the money was given away to a Jewish organization. “I grew up with this ethic,” he adds, “and it just became part of who I am.”


This story is part of our summer 2023 edition of Engage, our magazine celebrating the impact of SFU’s donor community.
To read more stories, please visit the Engage landing page.