By Sharon Wisch-Ray
Annette Wolk, treasured wife, mother, grandmother, sister, educator and founding rebbetzin of Congregation Shaare Tefilla in Dallas, passed away unexpectedly, Saturday, Feb. 1, 2020. She was 67.
Born May 15, 1952, to Esther and Sidney Becker in Washington, D.C., she was the middle of three children. The family moved to Silver Spring, Maryland, when she was about 8.
Mrs. Wolk graduated from Stern College of Yeshiva University with a B.A. in French. She and her husband Rabbi Howard Wolk met in June 1970 in the Pioneer Hotel in the Catskills, New York, while attending an NCSY national convention. They were married Aug. 24, 1975. She was the mother to six children — five sons and a daughter — and grandmother to 19 grandchildren.
It wasn’t until Shabbat came to a close Feb. 1 that Mrs. Wolk’s husband and five of her six children learned of her death. Son Gavi lives in Dallas, but her husband, Rabbi Wolk, was spending Shabbat in New York with his sons in advance of a mission to Israel Feb. 2. The Shaare Tefilla community quickly mobilized to help the Wolk family, who were spread out along the East Coast, get back to Dallas to make shiva plans.
When they boarded the plane Sunday morning, funeral plans were still to be determined.
“When the family got on the plane at 6 a.m. in Newark Sunday, I didn’t think we’d be able to pull everything together and have the funeral that day,” said Rabbi Wolk.
“It’s in Annette’s merit that everything worked out for Sunday, which was the most respectful day to have the funeral.”
Shaare Tefilla Rabbi Ariel Rackovsky explained that the funeral, which was attended by hundreds of people, was pulled together in about four hours.
“Only Annette Wolk could get 800 people to come to shul on time and sit still for over an hour and a half,” he said.
At the funeral held at Shaare Tefilla, Mrs. Wolk was eulogized by her husband, six children, grandson, brother Joel Becker, Chabad of Dallas Rabbi Mendel Dubrawsky and Rackovsky.
Rabbi Howard Wolk explained his wife of 44½ years relished all of her roles: rebbetzin, teacher, friend and mother and safta (grandmother). She taught at Akiba Academy, Yavneh Academy, Levine Academy and Tiferet Israel. She spent 25 years teaching at Akiba Academy, the last 12 in the third grade. She was looking forward to teaching her twin granddaughters, Ruby and Sydney, when they reached the third grade at Akiba. She taught people of all ages how to swim, and Israeli dancing to ladies. She was a founder of the community’s chevra kadisha (burial society).
Speaking from the Shaare Tefilla bimah at the first levayah (funeral) in the synagogue’s new building, Rabbi Wolk said, “Annette, this is your structure. Your Mishkan. You were indeed a brick builder at Shaare Tefilla, at Akiba and at Yavneh. You built our community and you built our home. Our children, baruch Hashem, turned out the way they did because of you, because of your love.”
Present, connected, positive and humble
Each of Mrs. Wolk’s children and her grandson commented that their mother was very present for them, whether cheering them on in sports, helping them with their academics or just being there.
“One of the deepest things I ever picked up from safta was how to talk,” said her grandson Koby, Eli’s son. “When safta said something she really meant it. When safta told us that she loved us, she really did love us. She loved all of her children. She loved all of her grandchildren.”
Youngest son Shimi said, “When she looked at her grandchildren, when she looked in their eyes, you knew she was looking at you with straight attention. It didn’t matter if there was screaming in the background, she was zoned in.”
Gavi added, “She had an amazing way to create a special connection with her kids or grandkids or the hundreds and hundreds of students, friends. It was really humbling.”
Fellow teacher and rabbi, son Akiva, said that his mom wasn’t someone that told people how to do something, she was one that took them by the hand and showed them.
“She didn’t just say lech, go, but rather she said bo, come with me and I will show you the way.”
Son Yonatan said his mom provided “constant love, constant individual attention, constant laughter, wisdom and comfort, all with a vibrancy of life.”
Daughter Michal said her mom was expert at zeroing in on who needed attention, whether in her family or in the community.
“She knew who needed help and encouragement and how to help them even if they didn’t know.”
She added, “She was present to give everyone their time, attention and love. My brothers and I always felt that and her grandchildren for sure knew that.”
Son Eli shared an anecdote of his mother’s pride in watching three Akiba graduates lead services at a recent Shabbat at Shaare Tefilla. Eli, the Wolks’ oldest son, was in town with his family visiting his parents. His brother Gavi, who lives in Dallas, serves as the shul’s gabbai and had asked him to lead the Musaf service. A third Akiba graduate, Eli Rosenberg, was holding the Torah.
After services, his mother shared with him that she spoke at the women’s Tehillim group. Something that she hadn’t planned to do that day, but she had something to share.
“There are times we look around and find problems. In the community we focus on all the things that are broken and need to be fixed. But Mom said there are many times like today when we should focus on the good and recognize what we’ve accomplished as a community.”
Boundless energy and enthusiasm
Mrs. Wolk power-walking at Akiba Academy was legendary. “If you arrived at school early enough you could join her as she led students around on her power walk around campus,” said Akiva.
Whether at her own children’s games or those of Akiba or Yavneh, Mrs. Wolk was the loudest cheerleader in the gym or on the field.
“She had a good eye for sports too, always screaming and yelling for her kids to take a shot or to wait for a good pitch,” said daughter Michal. “She was our team’s biggest fan and the opponents’ loudest enemy.”
Malkie Rosenberg summed up Mrs. Wolk’s energy in this Facebook post:
“Mrs. Wolk was everywhere simultaneously. She was at school teaching, giving bat mitzvah lessons, tutoring children in Hebrew, being a bubby to many (her biggest joy), rooting on the Mets, being an ear and shoulder to many and above all, doing it all while she danced.”
The teacher and mentor
Mrs. Wolk was the kind of teacher that inspired other teachers and brought out the best in her students.
“We had former students of hers that flew in just for a few hours to visit the family,” said Rabbi Wolk.
Rabbi Dubrawsky said that Mrs. Wolk brought Judaism to the students and their families. “Rebbetzin Wolk was the gateway for many many people into their yiddishkeit and their Judaism… When they walked into the school and they saw her with her smile, with her energy, they remembered why they got involved with yiddishkeit with words she taught them.” His children and grandchildren were among those who benefited from her wisdom.
Akiba Yavneh teacher Jennifer Squires worked with Mrs. Wolk for almost 13 years.
“I would never have imagined Akiba wouldn’t have Mrs. Wolk. She exuded energy and joy in everything she took on. I will never forget watching her dance and sing with the students. I would regularly tell her that she was my hero and that I wanted to be her some day. She was an exemplary teacher who was respected by all, co-workers, students and teachers. Her absence has left a hole that will be very hard to fill. I wish I would have seen the bigger picture of who Annette was as a person, while she was alive. She was everyone’s hero and role model. She will be dearly missed!”
Miriam Tannenbaum, who now lives in Israel and worked with her for many years at Akiba, explained the overwhelming sadness she felt when she learned that Mrs. Wolk had passed away. However, the example she set helped her get through her day. Tannenbaum wrote on Facebook:
“Yesterday, I awoke to many texts at 5 a.m.
“No words. I stared at the screen — both in Hebrew and in English, re-reading to see if I misread.
“A sense of shock envelops. And then it began to hit. Such deep sadness overwhelms.
“And I had to go to work. I had to go teach and I did. I worked throughout the day. Teaching classes, working one-on-one with students, worrying about others – all the while with a gulp in the back of my throat. I kept thinking this is what we do. This is what we have to do. This is what Annette z”l would do. Annette was always the teacher.”
Rabbi Yaakov Green, Akiba Yavneh headmaster, said that although he is new to the school this year, Mrs. Wolk’s influence at Akiba was clear from his first days.
“Immediately upon arrival to Dallas, and to Akiba Yavneh, Mrs. Wolk’s z”l presence was palpable. Her personality and her dedication to her work filled any room she was in, and really filled our entire campus. Every teacher, and honestly every administrator, leaned on her for support, guidance and wisdom. However what was most striking was Mrs. Wolk’s sincerity. She was just real. She was up front with her passion for Torah education, for her school, her shul, and most obviously for her family — which she extended to include every student she ever had.”
Shaare Tefilla Rabbi Ariel Rackovsky eulogized Mrs. Wolk at the funeral and spoke with the TJP this week.
He said that her influence on him, and his wife, could not be overstated both as a mentor and a friend.
“In reflecting on her loss, I realize that for me and my wife — and for so many others — she was a dear friend, but she was also a mentor. Raising a large, observant family, particularly a rabbinic family, is not easy and she succeeded spectacularly. I will miss the opportunity to access her wisdom constantly. And the warmth and passion she showed for bringing Jewish people closer to Jewish observance, Jewish learning and Jewish life in general.”
In addition to her husband, Rabbi Howard Wolk, Mrs. Wolk is survived by her six children and 19 grandchildren: Eli and Amy Wolk and their children Avi, Dani and Koby of Bergenfield, New Jersey; Rabbi Eric and Michal Olshan and their children Tzirel Yaffa, Yaacov, Avigayil, Rivka, Shua and Modo; Yonatan and Lani Wolk and their children Jordan, Rafi and Shoshi of Hillside, New York; Rabbi Akiva and Dr. Rachel Wolk and children Miri, Atara, Eliana and Esti of Boca Raton, Florida; Gavi and Talia Wolk and children Ruby, Sydney and Sammy; and Shimi Wolk of New York, New York. She is also survived by her brother and sister-in-law Joel and Tenise Becker and her sister and brother-in-law Ed and Linda Zuerndorfer, all of Silver Spring, Maryland, and many cherished friends.
Following the funeral service, students and teachers lined the Schultz Rosenberg campus of Akiba Yavneh Academy, as the funeral procession passed through en route to the Zion Section of Hillcrest Memorial Park, where Mrs. Wolk was laid to rest.
Memorial donations in Mrs. Wolk’s memory can be made to Rabbi Ariel Rackovsky’s discretionary fund at Congregation Shaare Tefilla, 972-661-0127 or www.shaaretefilla.org.
By Sharon Wisch-Ray