In a noisy restaurant in the Mid-Wilshire District, Rabbi Alfred Wolf begins speaking in Hebrew. Eyes cast down on his bowl of soup, he is talking to God, praying over lunch. Even at his own table, nobody takes notice. Still, this blessing quietly calls attention to Wolf's world, where prayer and a public life are not strangers.
He turned 80 this month. That puts him 60 years into his life as a German immigrant-turned-American citizen, 50-odd years into his time as a husband and father, and 46 years into his life as rabbi, then rabbi emeritus, at Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles.
But he began his toughest job even earlier. As a teen-ager in 1930s Germany, Wolf took up the unpopular cause of ending racial, religious and cultural prejudice. One of only two Jewish students in his public school, he led classmates on tours of his synagogue. "Even in Germany, I felt the main reason for Hitler's success was that people didn't know anything about Jews," he says. "There was more ignorance and folk beliefs than knowledge."
Other men have made a career of memorializing that injustice. In Wolf, it ignited a lifelong desire to invigorate causes he holds dear. Jewish culture, religious education, interfaith dialogue, even summer camping have felt the effects.
Now his attention is on the state of American society. Since 1985, when he retired from active duty as senior rabbi, Wolf has been director of the Skirball Institute on American Values, an agency of the American Jewish Committee. "We study and promote the contents of the U.S. Constitution," he says.
Founded by the late Jack Skirball, who also helped start the Skirball Cultural Center--which opens next month in West Los Angeles--the institute produces research projects, teaching manuals and conferences. At the moment, Wolf is preparing for an interfaith dialogue that will explore how we can change our values.
"So much of our treasury of values has been taken for granted," he says. "What is forgotten too often in the chaotic element of democracy is the clear and guiding principles that were there from the beginning."
A youthful passion for justice boils within him. In 80 years it has steamed open quite a personal story.
"I got to Cincinnati in a very romantic way," Wolf says of his migration to this country. Born in Eberbach, he entered a Hebrew seminary in Berlin after public school. By then, Hitler was in power. In 1935, at age 20, Wolf and four other students took part in an exchange-student program with Hebrew Union, an affiliated college in Ohio. He didn't understand that his life was at stake. But Julian Morgenstern, president of the Berlin seminary, did.
"It was the first organized attempt to get Jewish people trained in religion out of Germany," Wolf explains. "I credit my life to Dr. Morgenstern."
His parents, grandparents and aunt were deported to an internment camp in the Pyrenees. His grandfather died there. But in 1941, five days before the United States declared war on Germany, Wolf obtained visas for his relatives. "Everybody left [from that camp] was sent to Poland and killed," he says.
He begins this conversation in his office overlooking the temple's schoolyard. It is a room filled with books, family photographs and pictures of the rabbi posing with the world's religious leaders, including Pope John Paul II on his 1987 visit to Los Angeles. His wife, Miriam, made the ceramic tiles inlaid in a wooden arc, a cupboard-like container for the sacred scrolls of the Torah.
As Wolf tells his story, he suggests a tour of the temple, the city's oldest Jewish Reform temple, then sets off with a substantial set of keys. Selectively, he unlocks doors, including one that opens into a small chapel. More than 30 years ago, as the youngest of three rabbis on the temple staff, he recalls convincing his seniors of the need for this smaller space for Friday evening services. The main sanctuary--built in 1928 with stained-glass windows that attract visitors interested in art as well as religion--can accommodate all but 500 of the congregation's 2,500 members.
He leads the way, past display cases of ritual vessels and antique silver spice boxes used for Sabbath meals. Absorbed in telling the congregation's rich history, he always stands back to let others pass through a doorway. Wolf seems unconscious of his Old World manners, and of his sturdy good looks; he is ruggedly tan from years of hiking the Los Feliz hills near his home and muscular from daily swimming.
As the tour ends, he says, "I have to call my boss." Then he dials Miriam. She does the better job of describing the couple's courtship and early years of marriage. "It took a flood for us to meet," she begins. It was 1937, Cincinnati was under water and Hebrew Union had to close. Wolf went to Dayton, invited home by a classmate, where he met Miriam at a party. The next thing she knew, she was engaged.
Wolf's first assignment after ordination took them to Dothan, Ala., in 1941. For five years he served about 50 families from southeast Alabama, Georgia and Florida. "Alfred was happy there, with loads to do," Miriam recalls.
But she was not. "Alfred has a passion that people should care about people," she says. In the Deep South, before the civil rights movement, there wasn't enough of that. She remembers segregation and social inequality. The wealthy white women who drove their black housekeepers home to shanties on dirt roads left a strong impression. "I couldn't raise my children there," she says.
Their first child, David, was born in 1942. Then Judy three years later. Then Dan. David is now dean of academic instruction at the Maritime Academy in Vallejo, Calif. Dan works for Disney World as a corporate speech writer. In 1987 the Wolfs lost their daughter to cancer. She was 42 and principal of Haskell Elementary School in Granada Hills. A few weeks before her death, she married Jack Lee. He is still part of the Wolf family, bringing his second wife and their children to Passover dinners.
"Those were the saddest months of our life," the rabbi says. "Our daughter's death was a real test for Miriam and me. The test of faith is not when things happen according to our wishes--it comes when things happen that we can't understand."
Dan Wolf says he learned that lesson from his parents during his sister's illness. "My father was always a pillar when we were growing up," he explains. "I could always go to him. There was a consistency between his public and private personae. He was a wise, intelligent person at home and outside. The epiphany came for me when my sister died. It's one thing to help people with tragedies in their life. Another thing when it happens to you. To see how authentic my father's faith is, with no pretense or double standards, came clear when he presided over my sister's funeral."
In 1946, the family moved to Los Angeles, where Wolf was to be director of the Union of Hebrew Congregations, which oversees all Reform Jewish temples. As part of his new assignment, he was a guest preacher at Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Three years later, he joined the staff. Edgar Magnin, senior rabbi at the time, was a well-known and charismatic leader; a life-size oil portrait of him dominates a main staircase. It is 10 times the size of a photograph of Wolf beside it.
"In his time, people called this Magnin's temple," Wolf says. "But in my time they never would call it Wolf's temple. They'd call it the temple with the summer camp."
Few things make the rabbi's eyes sparkle like the words summer camp. "There never had been a synagogue as influenced by the establishment of its own camp," he says. "In that way, I was the mortar that eventually gave this temple a different shape."
His love of hiking and camping as a boy in Germany gave him the idea to re-create the experience. In 1952, after two years in rented facilities, the temple opened camp Hess-Kramer in Malibu, with Wolf at the center of activities. Sports, arts and crafts, cookouts, as well as discussions about the Jewish faith, were part of the program. About 1,000 children now attend each summer.
"My son Dan was born June 9, 1950, and the camp was to open the 15th," Wolf states with certainty. "So, we took the whole family to camp. We carried around our newborn in a wash basket." Wolf opened a second camp, Gindling Hilltop, in 1968.
Graduates of Hess-Kramer include some of today's religious leaders.
"Rabbi Wolf led me to become a rabbi," says Robert Wexler, president of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, who was a regular at summer camp.
"He spent tremendous amounts of time with the youth of the temple," Wexler recalls. "It was clear he was interested in developing our religious and spiritual side. He had a rabbinical dignity. A young person sees a man in that role and he becomes a model.
"Rabbi Wolf was very influential in our family," Wexler adds. "My sister met her future husband at camp."
That was part of the plan, though the campers never knew it. "A rabbi's job is to keep Jews Jewish," Wolf says. "If you favor continuity for what is an endangered religious minority, you've got to be against intermarriage." He quotes studies reporting what for him is the worst effect of intermarriage: "A majority of the children do not remain Jewish."
It seems odd, at first, that a man of this opinion would be one of the city's strongest advocates of interfaith activities. Wolf introduced inter-seminary day to the University of Judaism, Wexler says. Protestant ministers and Catholic priests in training meet with rabbis in training to discuss their faiths.
He helped create an annual conference of inter-seminary educators that meets once a year. As part of a 10-year project, he formed an advisory panel on religion and race issues that met with the superintendent of city schools. "He is an activist in the mending of the world," says Harvey Fields, a graduate of Hess-Kramer summer camp and senior rabbi of Wilshire Boulevard Temple since Wolf retired. "The old lessons need to be learned again with each generation. That is something we learn from Rabbi Wolf."
As a founder of the Inter-Religious Council of Southern California, in 1969, Wolf developed close friendships with leading clergy. The Very Rev. Msgr. Royale Vadakin now goes to the rabbi's house for Hanukkah dinner.
"The rabbi says, if you self-ghettoize, it's not good in the long run," Vadakin explains. "It never marred his commitment to Judaism that he is comfortable and willing to learn from others."
Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and Jews are among the religious groups represented on the council. Their work has included the planning of inter-religious services during the Los Angeles Summer Olympics in 1984. Together they have lobbied the city planning commission to allow a mosque to be built in a preferred location and have worked with the Immigration and Naturalization Service to check the harassment of Jews in the Middle East after the "Munich Massacre" at the Olympics of 1972.
Paul Lippe, chairman of the social action committee at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, describes a long-term relationship with Second Baptist Church. It started with pastor Thomas Kilgore, now emeritus, continues with William Epps, the current pastor, and includes a pulpit exchange program.
"They've worked together for years," says Lippe of the two congregations. "Since the '60s, involvement with the Jews and African Americans in the civil rights movement has continued."
At 80, Wolf is still an alternative voice. His take on current trends gives a sense of how his ideas on earlier issues must have sounded. "Religion is a two-edged sword," he says of the recent revived interest in the subject. "At its heart, it includes universalism. But the most visible aspects of religion divide people. More often than not they have led to religious war."
The militia movement comes to mind. "The difference between religion and 'in-the-name-of-religion' is difficult," Wolf says. "What would you consider the Crusades, for example? I look at the militia movement and I see real dangers."
And the Christian Coalition raises questions. "Left unchallenged, they would end separation of church and state," he believes. "Their less cautious members have declared America a Christian nation. But it would delegitimize most Americans to assume so. Most are not believing or practicing Christians. They are like Jews, they call themselves that, but do nothing about it."
For him, religious revivalism calls for guarded optimism. "Many are more conscious of religion and religious practices, including New Age," he says. "But it is questionable as to whether some are religions at all."
Does anyone still wonder whether he plans to slow down soon?
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Rabbi Alfred Wolf
Background: Born in Eberbach, Germany; lives in Los Angeles.
Family: Married for 55 years to Miriam Wolf, with whom he has two sons. A daughter died in 1987 of cancer.
Passions: Hiking, swimming, teaching.
On social justice: "At the feast of Passover, Jews remember we were once slaves in Egypt. Because God redeemed us, we found freedom. This must always drive us to be helpful to those enslaved today. It is at the core of Jewish ethics."
On spiritual life: "The most spiritual person I ever met was Dr. Leo Baeck, a rabbi and seminary teacher in Berlin. In Hitler's concentration camp, they had Baeck pull the cart into which they emptied the night's dirt and trash. He told me later he felt as if he was one of two draft animals. 'Fortunately,' he said, 'the other was a professor of classical literature, so we conversed in Greek.' "
On hope for the future: "I try to see the good in every possibility, and person. The positive approach means you are not condemned to failure."