Arnold Jacob Wolf, a Leading Reform Rabbi, Is Dead at 84

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    Dec 30, 2008 5:24 PM GMT

    New York Times 30.12.08

    Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, a nationally prominent Reform rabbi known for his progressive, sometimes provocative public stances, including opposition to the Vietnam War, a speech at Yale accusing the university of a history of anti-Semitism and early political support for his neighbor Barack Obama, died last Tuesday in Chicago. He was 84.

    Arnold Jacob Wolf in 1994.

    The apparent cause was a heart attack, his son Jonathan said.

    At his death, Rabbi Wolf was rabbi emeritus of KAM Isaiah Israel Congregation in Chicago, where he had served as rabbi from 1980 until his retirement in 2000. The synagogue, the oldest in Illinois, is in the Hyde Park neighborhood, directly across the street from the Obamas’ home.

    Throughout the 2008 presidential campaign, Rabbi Wolf was a highly visible advocate for Mr. Obama to Jews nationwide. In a letter Mr. Obama wrote to Rabbi Wolf’s family on Friday, which the family made available to a reporter, the president-elect said:

    “My conversations with him were always lively. You knew that if he disagreed with you, he would let you know in no uncertain terms — especially if he thought you were overlooking the moral dimensions of an issue, or rationalizing your own failure to live up to the highest moral principles. But he did it with kindness, and often with a smile or a laugh to let you know that even though you were just plain wrong, and had no idea what you were talking about, he still loved you.”

    Rabbi Wolf was a founding editor of Sh’ma, a magazine of Jewish social thought published 10 times a year. He wrote several books, most recently “Unfinished Rabbi: Selected Writings of Arnold Jacob Wolf,” published in 1998 by Ivan R. Dee.

    Reviewing “Unfinished Rabbi,” Publishers Weekly said, “The volume presents a fascinating chronicle through writing of one of the great Jewish voices of the 20th century.”

    Arnold Jacob Wolf was born in Chicago on March 19, 1924. His mother was a social worker; his father, a tailor, died when Arnold was 7. For several years, starting when he was about 10, Arnold acted in national radio dramas broadcast from Chicago on the Mutual Broadcasting System.

    After receiving an associate’s degree from the University of Chicago, Arnold Wolf earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Cincinnati in 1945. He received his ordination from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati in 1948 and later served as a Navy chaplain with United States occupation forces in Japan.

    In choosing his vocation, Rabbi Wolf had been greatly influenced by an uncle and a great-uncle, both Reform rabbis. (The great-uncle was the leader of the KAM congregation, a precursor of KAM Isaiah Israel. Founded in 1847, KAM took its name — an acronym for the Hebrew phrase “Kehilath Anshe Ma’arav,” “Congregation of the People of the West” — in tribute to its frontier origins.)

    “I became more traditional theologically than my family and more radical politically,” Rabbi Wolf told The Chicago Tribune last year. “I like that combination.”

    In 1957, Rabbi Wolf became the first full-time rabbi of Congregation Solel, a Reform synagogue in Chicago. Guest speakers there over the years included the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Chicago Seven, the seven defendants charged with inciting to riot and other offenses stemming from protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

    In 1965, the rabbi marched in Alabama with the civil rights leader John Lewis. Two years later, he led a group of congregants to Washington to lobby against the Vietnam War.

    Starting in the early 1960s, Congregation Solel conducted an annual weekend of Holocaust remembrance, among the first synagogues in the country to do so.

    In 1973, Rabbi Wolf helped found Breira, an organization of progressive American Jews that advocated a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The organization, whose name means “alternative” in Hebrew, was a target of frequent, bitter public attacks by American Zionists. It disbanded in 1977.

    Beginning in 1972, Rabbi Wolf spent eight years at Yale as a chaplain and the director of the university’s chapter of the Hillel Foundation, the Jewish student organization. In 1980, when he was preparing to leave Yale and return to Chicago, he delivered a blistering Yom Kippur sermon in which he charged the university with a “long and dishonorable history of anti-Semitism” and accused its administration of “callousness” toward the needs of Jewish students and faculty members. The sermon, and the university’s subsequent denial of Rabbi Wolf’s accusations, attracted wide public attention.
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    Dec 30, 2008 5:25 PM GMT
    Rabbi Wolf’s first marriage, to Margery Steiner, ended in divorce, as did his second, to Lois Blumberg. He is survived by his third wife, the former Grace Weiner; two sons from his first marriage, Jonathan and Benjamin; four stepdaughters, Sara Berger, Justine Henning, Sarah-Anne Schumann and Dara Henning; and 10 grandchildren.

    Even in retirement, Rabbi Wolf was a familiar presence in the news. Last year, for instance, he was the subject of newspaper articles in Chicago and around the nation, though for a far less controversial reason than usual. At 83, Rabbi Wolf was having his bar mitzvah, 70 years behind schedule. (“In those days, Reform Jews didn’t do it,” he told The Chicago Sun-Times.) He was a little nervous, he confessed, about having to chant Torah in public.

    This year, Rabbi Wolf was in the news again, for having looked all but clairvoyant in 1996, when he backed a young Chicagoan running for the Illinois Senate.

    “I said to him, ‘Mr. Obama, someday you will be vice president of the United States,’ ” Rabbi Wolf told The Jerusalem Post in October. “And he said, ‘Why vice president?’ and laughed.”
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    Dec 30, 2008 6:04 PM GMT
    What an interesting person
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    Dec 30, 2008 6:06 PM GMT
    Thanks for posting this up, interesting.