What we will miss most is his voice. It was muscular and musical, with an accent that sounded vaguely British at first, but later revealed itself to be all-American, with leftover “aahs” from Boston. When Gerald Wolpe died May 18 at the age of 81, American Jews lost one of our greatest sermonizers, one of our most fascinating and challenging pulpit leaders, and a renaissance rabbi whose dramatic life yielded several distinct acts, each with its own powerful teaching moments.
But Wolpe didn’t teach so much through the written word. His lessons were meant to be spoken, to be preached — and to be heard. So, as is true for the careers of so many congregational rabbis, you really had to be there, to hear that voice.
In my hometown of Harrisburg, Pa., they still talk about the inspirational speech he gave during the Six Day War from the back of a flatbed truck in the Jewish community center’s parking lot — after which my parents immediately pledged to Israel all the money they had saved for new carpeting. But his career was really made at Har Zion Temple in Philadelphia, once the mothership of the Conservative movement in America, which he led through its controversial process of reinvention in the early 1970s. With the power of his voice, and his canny sense of what he called “the retail business of religion,” he showed once urban Har Zion — home of legendary Simon Greenberg, the movement’s greatest teacher of pulpitry; David Goldstein, a founder of the Camp Ramah movement, and young scholars-in-residence Chaim Potok and Nahum Sarna — how to create a new synagogue and a new sensibility in the suburbs. By the mid 1980s, with the new Har Zion secure and his kids almost grown, Wolpe was approaching what he thought might be his Dayenu moment with the pulpit, and was plotting a second career as an academic, in the nascent field of bioethics.
But then life provided a stunning bioethics lesson of its own. Wolpe’s formidable wife, Elaine, the first woman ever called to the bimah at Har Zion, suffered a stroke that nearly killed her. And in nursing her back to health, Wolpe became a different rabbi, his voice suddenly devoted to exploring more personal themes of caregiving, community and faith in the face of family adversity. The personal saga of “Rabbi and Elaine,” as they were called, became an ongoing sermon that touched not only Jews in Philadelphia, but people of all faiths around the world, as well.
These events kept Wolpe on the pulpit for an extra 13 years, as he and his congregation cared for each other. His sermons became more personal in other ways, too, as he was more open about how losing his father at the age of 11, and then losing much of his family in the Holocaust only a few years later, had formed his sensibilities, leading to what he called “a theology based on anger.” His proof of God’s existence was that in order for him to remain that angry at something, it must exist — a view that was intellectually provocative and deeply egocentric, just like Wolpe himself.
He struggled with the changes in synagogue services, as they became shorter and more informal and the synagogue became a place where younger rabbis were called by their first names. (“I’ve paid a price,” he later admitted, “for not being Jerry.”) And his sermons were also informed by the intellectual and emotional exploits of his four sons, who grew up to be, in chronological order, a medical researcher, a bioethicist and two rabbis. So, by the time Wolpe was ready to retire in 1999, he and Har Zion had been through a lot together — which made parting and choosing his successor all the more challenging.
I knew Wolpe as a kid growing up in Harrisburg, but got to know him and his family in a completely different way in the late 1990s, when he agreed to let me chronicle the end of his reign at Har Zion and the process of selecting a new rabbi, for a book about congregational life and leadership. We both expected the rabbi search, and the book project, to be an uncontroversial one-year affair. Instead, they turned out to be one more teaching moment, as his beloved synagogue, like so many trying to replace a longtime leader, struggled for new equilibrium. He encouraged the synagogue’s leaders to be open, as well, believing the process of a congregation honestly wrestling with its past and future to be worthy of frank discussion. While my book “The New Rabbi” rankled some, it is now used in seminaries and houses of worship across the country — and not just Jewish ones — as a tool to confront the difficult process of change and the challenges of leadership, lay and clergy. I think Wolpe was proud of that.
I just got back from Wolpe’s funeral at Har Zion, where all four of his sons spoke eloquently about their father and his many intellectual, emotional and spiritual gifts. There was a lot of humor. (His eldest son recalled asking as a child what his dad’s sermon topic would be. “Judaism,” he was told. But what about Judaism, he asked. “I’m for it,” the young rabbi answered, with a cherubic grin.) There were a lot of tears — a lot of tears. And what everyone came back to, in one way or another, was his magnificent vocal instrument. But while we will miss that voice, ultimately it is what one says and what one does that matters. And what Jerry Wolpe said and did really mattered.
Stephen Fried, an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, is the author of “The New Rabbi”(Bantam Books).