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Gerald I. Wolpe, Longtime Rabbi at Har Zion, Dies at 81

May 21, 2009 By:
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Rabbi Gerald I. Wolpe
Rabbi Gerald I. Wolpe, the longtime head of Har Zion Temple, led his congregation in a difficult move from the city to the suburbs and pushed the synagogue to become fully egalitarian in the early 1970s, long before most other Conservative shuls had taken such a step.

But perhaps the greatest challenge in his 50-year career came after his wife Elaine suffered two brain aneurysms in 1986. Rather than step aside to care for her full time, Wolpe remained at his pulpit and spoke about their day-to-day struggles, incorporating the ordeal into his teachings and writings on Judaism and medical ethics.

Wolpe, 81, of Center City, died May 18 of pancreatic cancer at Penn Hospice at Rittenhouse.

"He had flaws, but they were remarkably few and trivial," Wolpe's son, David, himself one of the most well-known rabbis in the country, said during Tuesday's memorial service at Har Zion in Penn Valley.

More than 600 people crowded into the sanctuary for an emotional ceremony that included speeches from Wolpe's four sons, each of whom at times fought back tears. The burial ceremony was private.

"He was a teddy bear; he was a sage with a twinkle in his eyes," noted David Wolpe.

'Splitting of the Sea'

The elder Wolpe first came to Har Zion Temple in 1969, which at the time was located in the Wynnefield section of Philadelphia and had already grown into one of the area's largest synagogues. Four years later, the congregation made the decision to leave the city for the Main Line, where many of the shul's younger families had settled. That move did not please everyone, and was the subject of a Newsweek feature about white flight from urban areas.

According to The New Rabbi, a 2002 book by journalist Stephen Fried about the search for Wolpe's replacement, some families left over the decision.

Rabbi Aaron Landes -- who was a classmate of Wolpe's at the Jewish Theological Seminary in the 1950s and who served at Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park during the same time period when Wolpe was at Har Zion -- said that Wolpe's leadership prevented further discord.

Landes compared Wolpe's task to "the splitting of the Red Sea," as he was not only responsible for mending fences, but for overseeing the finances and logistics of moving to a more than 70-acre property in Penn Valley. There, the synagogue grew in stature and number; by the time Wolpe retired in 1999, it boasted 1,500 member families. (Today, it stands at about 1,060.)

Wolpe worked during an era when a rabbi was expected to deliver extensive sermons from the bimah, rather than serve as a discussion leader, which has become more common; and Landes said that his colleague was among the best orators in the Conservative movement.

While Wolpe might prepare prodigiously, he rarely took the time to actually write out his sermons, instead choosing to deliver them extemporaneously, added Landes.

His sons described their father as a voracious reader, who loved English poetry, and enjoyed infusing his sermons with literary and historical references. In addition, he had developed an interest in medical ethics back in the 1960s. In fact, according to Fried's book, he had toyed with the idea of leaving the rabbinate to pursue an academic career.

But those plans were abandoned after Elaine suffered two aneurysms at the age of 54; for several years, she had trouble walking and communicating, although her speech later improved somewhat.

Landes said that Wolpe decided to speak openly about his wife's condition partly because she had been such an integral part of the congregation, and it was a way to keep the "synagogue family" informed.

Fried wrote that many congregants noticed a change in Wolpe -- that he displayed greater humility and empathy.

Paul Root Wolpe, a noted academic and bioethicist, said that his father was forced to play a new role in life, that of caregiver -- something that he did with tenderness and grace.

"Laughter was the percussion of his life, but dad was also beset by a deep sadness and vulnerability," he said during the service.

The elder Wolpe later became a nationally recognized medical ethicist, and from 1996 to 1999 served as chairman of the advisory committee of the Bioethics Center at the University of Pennsylvania, where he remained a senior fellow.

He also taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and from 1997 to 2002 worked as director of its Louis Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies.

The rabbi held leadership positions within the wider Philadelphia Jewish community, serving as president of the Board of Rabbis and as a trustee of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. He'd also sat on the board of the Jewish Publishing Group.

After retirement, Wolpe and his wife moved to Center City and became members of Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel.

A native of the Roxbury section of Boston, Wolpe grew up during the Great Depression.

He lost his father at the age of 11 -- a loss that his sons said haunted him for his entire life.

Daniel Wolpe, a rabbi in Albany, N.Y., said that his father had to learn to defend himself on the streets of Boston and actually amassed six victories as an amateur boxer before suffering a first-round knockout.

Years later, he said that his father was nearly kicked out of the Jewish Theological Seminary after he struck a man in a movie theater who'd made an anti-Semitic remark.

Wolpe studied Renaissance history at New York University. He was ordained in 1953 and served as a Navy chaplain for two years before taking up his first pulpit at Synagogue Emanu-El in Charleston, S.C.

He moved to Beth El Temple in Harrisburg in 1958, where he spent 11 years.

In addition to his wife of 54 years -- and sons David, Paul and Daniel -- Wolpe is survived by son Stephen, who is a biomedical researcher, and eight grandchildren.


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