Rabbi Alfred Wolf, who served the Wilshire Boulevard Temple for 36 years, created prototype summer camps for Jewish youth and was an international leader in combating racial, religious and cultural prejudice, died Sunday. He was 88.
Wolf died at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center after a series of strokes, said his son Dan.
The rabbi served Wilshire Boulevard, the city’s oldest Jewish Reform temple, from 1949 until 1985 and maintained an office there until a couple of years ago, when his health began to decline. He was revered as a champion of interfaith dialogue and ecumenical exchanges, and met with Pope John Paul II during the pope’s 1987 visit to Los Angeles.
Wolf was so popular that the late Times columnist Jack Smith, while declaring himself “not religious,” wrote: “Even a pagan may be in need of spiritual advice, and I chose Rabbi Wolf because I know him to be a man of probity, learning, sound judgment and spiritual reach.” Smith was a guest at an ecumenical Seder presided over by Wolf.
After retiring as rabbi, Wolf became known for his work as founding director of the Skirball Institute on American Values of the American Jewish Committee, designed in part to broaden the political appeal of right-wing protestant “Christian values” campaigns.
“So much of our treasury of values has been taken for granted,” Wolf told The Times in 1995, just before leaving the Skirball position. “What is forgotten too often in the chaotic element of democracy is the clear and guiding principles that were there from the beginning.”
Wolf was also remembered for creating summer camps to encourage Jewish youth to embrace their religion, history and culture.
An avid hiker and swimmer, Wolf cherished his boyhood memories of camping in Germany and in 1950 organized a summer camp for local Jewish youth at rented Presbyterian facilities. In 1952, he opened the temple’s Camp Hess-Kramer in Malibu, and in 1968 added nearby Gindling Hilltop Camp. Wolf’s camps, serving up to 1,200 young people each summer, became the prototype for the American Jewish youth camping movement.
At Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Wolf followed Rabbi Edgar Magnin, who was senior rabbi until his death in 1984 at age 94. Wolf, who inherited the title after 35 years as associate to Magnin, enjoyed showing temple visitors the life-size oil portrait of Magnin and his own photo, one-tenth as big, beside it.
“In his time people called this Magnin’s temple,” Wolf told The Times. “But in my time they never would call it Wolf’s temple. They’d call it the temple with the summer camp. There never had been a synagogue as influenced by the establishment of its own camp. In that way, I was the mortar that eventually gave this temple a different shape.”
For many years, Wolf was the hands-on camp director, enthusiastically guiding youngsters through sports, arts, crafts, cookouts and discussions about Jewish faith.
“We are a Jewish camp,” he told The Times in 1974 as he celebrated nearly a quarter-century of success, “but we see our Judaism within the total context of humanity.”
Equally enthusiastically, he dedicated himself to helping religious leaders get to know more about each other. In 1969, Wolf helped launch and served as founding president of the Inter-Religious Council of Southern California, bringing together Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and Jews. Among their projects were planning inter-religious services for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and lobbying city planners for placement of a mosque.
Wolf served 15 years on the Los Angeles County Commission on Human Relations and introduced inter-seminary day at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, bringing together Protestant ministers, Catholic priests and rabbis during their training.
He helped create an annual conference of inter-seminary educators and formed an advisory panel on religion and race to meet with leaders of the Los Angeles Unified School District. In 1993, he co-chaired the first Nationwide Conference for Catholic, Jewish and Protestant Seminaries in Chicago.
Born in Eberbach, Germany, on Oct. 7, 1915, Wolf became concerned about ecumenical education in his youth. One of only two Jewish students in his public school, he led classmates on tours of his synagogue.
“Even in Germany,” he told The Times, “I felt the main reason for Hitler’s success was that people didn’t know anything about Jews. There was more ignorance and folk beliefs than knowledge.”
Wolf began his religious studies at a Hebrew seminary in Berlin after Adolf Hitler came to power. He credited his life to the seminary president, Julian Morgenstern, who arranged in 1935 for him and four other students to go to Hebrew Union College in Ohio on an exchange-student program.
The future rabbi’s parents, grandparents and aunt were deported to an internment camp in the Pyrenees, and his grandfather died there. But Wolf, an only child who remained in Ohio and became a U.S. citizen in 1941, obtained visas for the others five days before the U.S. declared war on Germany, saving them.
Wolf took his first post as rabbi in 1941 in Dothan, Ala., although the pre-civil rights South seemed an odd place for the advocate of interracial tolerance. In 1946, he moved his growing family to Los Angeles, where he became director of the Union of Hebrew Congregations, which oversees all Reform Jewish temples. He served as guest preacher at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, and three years later joined its staff.
During his long tenure in Los Angeles, he taught at USC, where he earned doctoral degrees, and at Hebrew Union College, Chapman College, Loyola University and Cal State L.A. Wolf wrote widely, including book reviews and opinion articles for The Times. He was the coauthor of two books, “Our Jewish Heritage” in 1957 and “Journey of Discovery: A Resource Manual for Catholic-Jewish Dialogue” in 1989. He edited the 1991 “Teaching About World Religions.”
In addition to his son Dan, Wolf is survived by his wife of 64 years, Miriam; another son, David; and four grandchildren. A daughter, Judy Wolf Lee, died of cancer in 1987. Services are scheduled at 11 a.m. Wednesday at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, 3663 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles.