By Harriet P. Gross
The fellow in the Chicago Tribune photo might be Santa, with his chubby cheeks, sly little smile and bushy white brows over laughingly crinkled eyes. But this man delivered presents to Judaism.
The Dec. 23 death of Arnold Jacob Wolf, one of America’s most innovative, provocative, passionate and controversial Reform rabbis, rated a half-page, heavily headlined obituary in his home-town paper.
After 1948 ordination at Cincinnati’s Hebrew Union College, Arnie came home to assist his uncle, the rabbi of Chicago’s Temple Emanuel, often called then “the church on the lake” because it was a bastion of Classic Reform across the road from Lake Michigan.
During the Korean War, Arnie was a Navy chaplain in Japan; his survival in a damaged seaplane’s water landing changed him, prioritizing anti-war sentiment and enhancing commitment to social justice. So he fit well with Chicago’s affluent, young, north suburban activists, helping them found Congregation Solel (“Pathfinder”) in 1957. The next year, I started teaching Solel’s ninth-graders. Rabbi Wolf was my life-changing Jewish experience.
Solel’s first members were breakaways from the nearby large, traditional temple where I’d been teaching a Saturday morning ninth-grade section. Finding its atmosphere stilted and stifling, I made a local comparison by joining the new congregation’s Sunday school faculty as well.
I quickly learned how different things could be. During the big temple’s teacher training, its rabbi lectured with lengthy pride about how well he understood Moses, who relied on his brother Aaron as spokesman before Pharaoh, because he himself had overcome a speech impediment. By contrast, Rabbi Wolf’s session with teachers was so short, I can still quote its total content virtually verbatim: “No matter how good you are, some student in your class will learn nothing from you. No matter how bad you are, some student will still learn something from you. But you all stand in front of your students as Jewishly identified teachers, and if they like what they see, they’ll want to be Jewish, too. So forget that emphasis on curriculum. Just get in there and Jew it!”
So I tried to do that for my four Solel years, during which Arnie made tikkun olam real. Example: He brought Martin Luther King to inspire and challenge his congregants, then rode with them on buses to Alabama, to march in Selma. The Trib quotes Bud Levis, an early Solel president: “He was really a believer in what was true Judaism. It wasn’t just the ceremony, the ritual….”
Solel was also, as Levis additionally notes, a truly lay-led congregation. In a rich part of Chicagoland with a gigantic “edifice complex,” Arnie railed against constructing a new temple building, wanting to put money into social action instead. But since Solel had hopelessly outgrown its rented suburban quarters, the board outvoted him. This is his rabbinic capitulation, the text of his Yom Kippur sermon that year: “After the holidays, a member of the Building Committee will call on each of you. Most of you will be asked to give a great deal. The rest of you will be asked to give more than that.” I understand that the new facility was completed without any mortgage at all. Arnie had honored his congregants as they had honored him: He was America’s first pulpit rabbi given a vote of confidence and retaining his position after a divorce!
Arnie left Solel in 1972 to become Jewish chaplain and Hillel director at Yale, then later came home again to lead Chicago’s oldest Jewish congregation, KAM Isaiah Israel (Kehillah Anshe Maarabh — “a gathering of men in the West”) in the city’s venerable Hyde Park neighborhood. And this is why his recent death received whatever national, non-Jewish publicity it did: That synagogue is across the street from what will remain Barack Obama’s family home until the forthcoming White House move.
“Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf was not just our neighbor, but a dear friend,” the president-elect said. “We are joined in this time of grief by … all those who shared his passion for learning and profound commitment for serving others. [His] name is synonymous with service, social action, and the possibility of change….”
Arnie Wolf angered his congregants ‘way back when by predicting that at least 40 percent of them would see an intermarriage in their families in the next 20 years (actually, an under-prediction!). But his outspoken fearlessness showed many that it’s OK to be strong enough in your beliefs to take action on them. And his own fearlessness in action inspired and forever changed many. I’m proud to be one among them.
By Harriet P. Gross