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Monday, February 28, 2005

Rabbi Wolf, zatz"l

Musings #102
February 27, 2005
The 18th of Adar Alef

An American Jewish Hero

This week was the first yartzeit (anniversary of the death of) a very special American rabbi. He wasn’t one of the “famous gdolim,” but his influence was no less vital to the Jewish world. When he and his family were still young, he took them to what was “the boondocks” of Orthodox Jewry, a community so lacking that others feared to tread or fled soon after arriving. Unlike many young rabbis, he didn’t use his lower-status pulpit as a stepping-stone to a “better job;” he transformed his tiny wisp of a congregation into a large vibrant Orthodox community.

In 1956 when Rabbi Ephraim Wolf, zatz”l, agreed to come to the Great Neck Synagogue, his sons were the only boys who wore kippot on the streets of Great Neck, and there were hardly any fully shomer mitzvot families. Today not only are there many more kosher restaurants than there were frum families, but there are also quite a number of additional Orthodox synagogues.

When Rabbi and Elaine Wolf moved with their two sons to Great Neck, the “experts” were predicting the demise of Orthodox Jewry. It’s ironic and fitting that this article about the growth of Orthodox Jewry came of the week of his yartzeit.
http://www.israelnn.com/news.php3?id=77454 . Rabbi Wolf was one of those who changed the face and soul of American Jewry.

Rabbi Wolf welcomed my family to the Great Neck Synagogue when we moved to Great Neck in 1962, even though we were far from being Orthodox. He welcomed my brother and sister into the afternoon Hebrew School and me into the “Teen Club.” He sent his own two sons to the “Teen Club,” even though most of the members were public school kids like me, who knew nothing of Shabbat, kashrut and Jewish Law. We were also encouraged to welcome all of our friends to the activities, irrespective of their parents’ shul membership. All Jewish youth of Great Neck was welcomed to our activities.

Yes, the word “welcome” is the key to Rabbi Wolf’s success. Chabad (Lebovitch Chassidim) may get all the big publicity for bringing Jews back to Torah Judaism, but the real heroes are people like Rabbi Wolf. Rabbi Wolf welcomed us and accepted us and with no fanfare slowly built an Orthodox community. Youth activities were always supported by professional youth leaders and membership in NCSY. In addition he established a Jewish Day School and to guarantee that the students would arrive, he was the driver who picked them up in the morning and drove them home in the afternoon. Within two decades, the school had grown so large that it took over an empty public school building that was no longer in use.

Rabbi Wolf took great pride in those of us who had participated in the Teen Club activities. Over the years I’d hear reports that “Rabbi Wolf mentioned you in his sermon, again.” I’m not the only one who is religious today because of the opportunities Rabbi Wolf gave us. When we were young we had no idea that we were part of a Jewish revolution, but apparently Rabbi Wolf knew perfectly well what was happening. He had a vision and a dream and worked hard to bring it to fruition. That is why is was so proud of us.

I was privileged to attend the Jerusalem memorial assembly for Rabbi Wolf. As I listened to all the shiurim and reminisces by the family and the distinguished rabbis, I realized that I barely knew him. He did so many things for so many people in a way that seemed so effortless. When he spoke to me, it was as if he had all the time in the world.

It was also good seeing my old friends, Dahvid and Leah, his son and daughter-in-law, whom I’ve known since my early teens.

How could Rabbi Wolf be dead a year already? To think that he’d no longer be greeting me with “How wonderful to see you and your lovely family.”

May the entire family be blessed, and may I take this opportunity to thank Rabbi Wolf for all he did for me.

More information about Rabbi Wolf can be found on the memorial site established by the Great Neck Synagogue. http://www.gns.org/index.cfm

Batya Medad, Shiloh
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Mordechai said...

I found your blog while searching for information online.

I must comment on what you've written:

Chabad (Lebovitch [sic] Chassidim) may get all the big publicity for bringing Jews back to Torah Judaism, but the real heroes are people like Rabbi Wolf.

Do you mean to imply that Lubavitcher Chassidim who have done outreach are not real heroes? Or that they have received undue publicity for their work bringing Jews to Torah observance? Or that, somehow, Rabbi Wolf a"h was never recognized for his efforts because Lubavitchers have received "all the big publicity"?

Please be careful with what you write, even on a personal blog, because words have the power to create images, form opinions, and give consensus even to simplistic, false, and divisive notions such as yours here.

Batya said...

First of all, Chabad doesn't have a monopoly in the "baal tshuva" mitzvah.

There's no need to get so upset when it's pointed out.

When Rabbi Wolf and his family agreed to move to Great Neck, it was not very different than when a young Chabad family moves to a community that barely has a minyan and there's no mikvah.

Things were very different over 50 years ago, and one shouldn't belittle the challenges and success of others.