Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, 1924-2008: Led 2 prominent Reform Jewish congregations
He mixed respect and deep knowledge of Jewish tradition with a
willingness to ask questions
By Trevor Jensen | Tribune reporter
December 25, 2008
Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf, a provocative and influential leader of
Reform Judaism, blended probing scholarship with a profound
commitment to social justice while leading two prominent Chicago-area
Rabbi Wolf, 84, died Tuesday, Dec. 23, in the University of Chicago
Hospitals, apparently of a heart attack, said his son Jonathan.
He led KAM Isaiah Israel Congregation in Kenwood, the city's oldest
Jewish congregation, from 1980 to 2000. In 1957 he helped launch
Congregation Solel in Highland Park, where he remained until 1972.
At both temples, he mixed respect and deep knowledge of Jewish
tradition with a willingness to ask questions, try new things and
expose his congregation to an eclectic collection of guest speakers.
At Congregation Solel, those included Rev. Martin Luther King and
defendants in the Chicago 7 conspiracy trial.
"Solel is not just a footnote, it was a ground-breaking
congregation," said Rabbi Ira Youdovin, former executive vice
president of the Chicago Board of Rabbis.
Rabbi Wolf instituted practices then unheard of, now more common,
such as letting his congregation write its own prayer book and make
decisions previously reserved for the rabbi, Youdovin said.
Membership was capped at 400 and bar mitzvahs were banned.
"It was a lay-led congregation," said Allen "Bud" Levis, a founding
member and the congregation's third president. "He was really a
believer in what was true Judaism. It wasn't just the ceremony, the
ritual, it was the interpretation."
Secular issues were fair game for temple talks, and through the 1960s
Rabbi Wolf marched in Selma, Ala., for civil rights and traveled to
Washington to protest the Vietnam War.
"The core teaching of Torah for him had to do with justice, and one
sometimes had to speak about that in ways that people didn't care to
hear," said Rabbi Laurence Edwards, who grew up in Congregation Solel
and now serves Congregation Or Chadash in Edgewater. "He was unfazed
by criticism. He said what he thought."
After leaving Congregation Solel, Rabbi Wolf spent eight years as
Jewish chaplain and Hillel director at Yale University, where he
found an activist compatriot in Rev. William Sloane Coffin, the
Returning to Chicago and joining KAM Isaiah Israel, his most recent
political activity was his support for President-elect Barack Obama,
whose home is across the street from the congregation's synagogue.
Rabbi Wolf grew up in Lakeview and as a boy was an actor with the
Mutual Radio Network. His mother was a social worker, and his father,
a tailor, died when he was 7. He was greatly influenced by his uncle
and great-uncle, both rabbis. He graduated from Lake View High School.
"He knew from a young age he wanted to be a rabbi," his son Benjamin said.
He received a two-year associate's degree from the University of
Chicago, then a bachelor's degree in philosophy from the University
of Cincinnati. He completed rabbinical studies at Hebrew Union
College in Cincinnati and was ordained in 1948.
After a stint as an assistant to his uncle, Rabbi Felix Levy, at
Temple Emanuel in Chicago, he served as a Navy chaplain in Japan
during the Korean War. A near crash in a seaplane that landed safely
in the water was a life-altering experience, he told the Tribune last year.
Like many Reform Jews, Rabbi Wolf did not receive his bar mitzvah at
13. Instead, he went through the ceremonial ritual at 83, 13 years
after passing the Biblical life span of "three score and 10."
"My father would say, 'Life starts at 70,' " Jonathan said.
Rabbi Wolf's first two marriages ended in divorce.
In addition to his sons, he is survived by his wife, Grace;
stepchildren Sara Berger, Justine Henning, Sarah-Anne Schumann and
Dara Henning; and 10 grandchildren.
Services are set for 10 a.m. Friday in KAM Isaiah Israel, 1100 E.
Hyde Park Blvd.
Tribune reporter Deanease Williams-Harris contributed to this report.