Familiar Face at Skirball Institute : Wolf Retires From Wilshire Temple, Takes Director Post

Times Staff Writer

Establishment of the Skirball Institute on American Values of the American Jewish Committee, to be announced Wednesday, opens a new chapter in a professional and personal relationship between philanthropist Jack Skirball and Rabbi Alfred Wolf that dates back almost four decades.

They met soon after Wolf moved here in July of 1946, their introduction arranged by Jacob R. Marcus, who had been Wolf's history professor at Cincinnati's Hebrew Union College. Since that time, Wolf said, "I've made few major decisions in my life without discussing them with Jack."

The latest of these was to agree to become the first director of the new institute, which has been established with a $250,000 endowment from Skirball, who wished to utilize Wolf's talents following his retirement Nov. 1 as senior rabbi of Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

It seems fitting that the institute's first steering committee includes Marcus, who is now director of the American Jewish Archives and professor emeritus at Hebrew Union College.

Pilot Program

The institute, to be headquartered in Los Angeles, is a pilot program, possibly a prototype, that will provide a forum for inter-religious, inter-ethnic dialogue on values such as the changing character of the American family, concerns about crime and pornography, patriotism, loss of respect for the elderly.

"We are not limiting ourselves to Jewish values," said Wolf. "What we're saying is the Jerry Falwells don't have a monopoly on America. Some of his values are very similar to ours but when he intimates that America's values are Christian values, that is a negation of American pluralism."

Concurred Irving Levine, New York-based director of national affairs for AJC and head of its Institute for American Pluralism: "For many years we have been concerned that the only people seemingly speaking about values in public, raising a variety of tough issues, are radical right-wing people.

"We think that too often people who are categorized as liberals, or neo-conservatives or neo-liberals, have left the field to radical right-wing forces. And we think that is dangerous. Fundamentalism is not the only answer."

Levine will speak on "The Search for American Values: Where Does the Jewish Community Stand?" at an AJC-Los Angeles chapter luncheon Wednesday at Wilshire Boulevard Temple at which the institute and its goals will be announced and Wolf will be introduced in his new role. On Thursday Levine will address "Pluralism in America" before religious, ethnic and business leaders at a luncheon at the temple co-sponsored by the Skirball Institute and the National Conference of Christians and Jews.

Twenty years ago, Alfred Wolf began planning his retirement, to take place when he reached 70. "Of course, 70 seems a lot younger now than it did then," said Wolf. He and Rabbi Edgar Magnin, who had been senior rabbi since 1915 at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, had a talk and, Wolf recalled, "I said, 'How about you and me retiring when I'm 70?' He replied, 'But I'll be just 95. That'll be too soon for me.' At that time Rabbi Magnin planned to live to 120."

As it turned out, Wolf noted, "God decided otherwise." Magnin died in July of 1984 at the age of 94; he was at the time of his death still senior rabbi, a post that then went to Wolf after 35 years as associate rabbi.

It was half a century ago, in 1933, in his native Germany that Wolf made the decision to be a rabbi--"When Hitler came to power I realized how much my religious education meant to me. Those who didn't have this experienced only the hurt." It was a decision that was to save his life; he was one of five students at the seminary in Berlin invited to complete their educations at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.

'Unique Relationship'

Wilshire Boulevard Temple has a large congregation, 2,500 families, and, Wolf said, "Rabbi Magnin was big enough to give me the space to do the things that were important to me." He does not feel that he

labored for 35 years in Magnin's shadow. "Ours was a unique relationship," he said. "We may be raising people who will match his ego, but not his greatness."

It was Wolf who, with the permission but initially not the backing of Magnin, began Camp Hess Kramer, the prototype for the American Jewish Youth camping movement. Another major interest has been inter-religious and inter-cultural relations. Wolf was founding president of the Inter-religious Council of Southern California, served 15 years (two as chairman) on the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations and was a pioneer in inter-congregational dialogue between Catholics, Jews and Protestants, both laity and clergy.

"I'm beginning to feel my age," Wolf acknowledged; still, retirement was out of the question--"I worried that I might not have something specific to work for. I'm 70 but I'm still the little boy who wants to know what he's going to do when he grows up."

As rabbi emeritus, he keeps an office at Wilshire Boulevard Temple and will participate in the Sabbath services and festivals but he has said goodby to 70-hour work weeks and is "sloughing off the routines--weddings and funerals." His successor is Rabbi Harvey Fields, who came as associate in 1972 from Canada's largest Reform temple in Toronto.

Easing the Transition

Recently, Wolf said, he had been working to ease the transition between the "old school," represented by Magnin, and Fields, "a man two generations younger."

Now, he is turning his energies to the Skirball Institute on American Values. Under a five-year contract, he will be its director. "Apparently," he said, "I've had the ability to encourage, and to raise money, and I hope even in my 70s I haven't lost that skill."

The steering committee of 25 will include businesswoman Caroline Leonetti Ahmanson; philanthropist Anna Bing Arnold; New York attorney Morris Bergreen; the Rev. Charles Casassa, former president of Loyola Marymount University; Howard Friedman, attorney and national president, AJC; attorney Martin Gang; Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk, president of Hebrew Union College-Cincinnati; Robert Goldfarb of Ruane, Cunniff and Co. financial managers, New York; David Gordis of New York, executive vice president of AJC; George Heyman of Shearson Lehman Bros., New York; Uri Herscher, vice president, Hebrew Union College-Los Angeles.

Also, Felix Juda, senior vice president, Sutro and Co.; the Rev. Thomas Kilgore Jr., pastor, Second Baptist Church; Harry Kitano, professor of social welfare, UCLA; David Lieber, president of the University of Judaism; Jacob R. Marcus of Hebrew Union College-Cincinnati; Dr. Franklin D. Murphy, chairman of the executive committee, Times Mirror Co.; Julian Nava, former U.S. ambassador to Mexico; Lucille Ellis Simon; Mel Swig, Fairmount Hotels Corp., San Francisco; Methodist Bishop Jack Tuell; Msgr. Royale Vadakin, chairman of the commission on ecumenical and inter-religious activities, archdiocese of Los Angeles; and Leonard Weil, president of Mitsui Manufacturers Bank. Audrey and Jack Skirball will also serve.

In establishing the Skirball Foundation, "We start with the notion that there is increasing concern in our country about the question of values," said Neil Sandberg, Western regional director of the AJC. "We saw some renaissance of these values expressed throughout the country during the Olympics period."

The income from Jack Skirball's $250,000 endowment will pay the director's salary and operating expenses for the institute. To fund activities and programs, Sandberg said, friends of Rabbi Wolf have contributed an additional $20,000 and the AJC is making a contribution of funds and staff services totaling about $25,000 a year.

Initial activities, Sandberg said, will include research on core values, religious and non-religious, to identify the changing character of the American culture and areas of specific concern. Later, symposia will bring together leaders of all major religious faiths, scholars and community leaders to assess these concerns and will develop publications to stimulate further thought about intergroup issues.

'Consensus of Values'

"When we talk about values," Irving Levine said, "we're talking about honesty, patriotism, devotion to duty, things broadly acceptable regardless of religious persuasion. . . . We're saying there is a consensus of core values that comes out of the secular tradition and even the American Constitutional position.

"There's a strong consensus in the United States about most of those values. We ought to be arguing less about them and applying them more. . . . Nobody has to argue whether or not you ought to teach honesty. You may have different methods of teaching honesty."

In Levine's view, diversity is in itself a value, and expression of that diversity is an important safeguard of the rights of minorities.

"We're worried," he said. "We're worried about the growth of paganism, hedonism and broken families. It's happening in the Jewish community as it is in other communities. We're worried about suburban wastelands of narcissistic yuppies. It's totally antagonistic to our tradition."

Nevertheless, he said, "You cannot just go out and push people to return to fundamentalism. You've got to be able to clarify people's own values. (Through group processes) you can strengthen people's sense of how their tradition can come into the present time."

He added: "Values don't have to be terribly controversial. There is such a thing as eternal values and values of contemporary society. They have to be brought together."

It is appropriate that the Jewish community initiate this dialogue, he said: "The American Jew has much to tell to other groups on the way up, much to say about pragmatic problem-solving."

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