If you ask Newsweek, he’s one of the most influential rabbis in America. If you ask the Jerusalem Post, he’s one of the 50 most influential Jews in the world.
But here in Philadelphia, he’s one of the most famous alumni of the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy.
Back when David Wolpe, class of ’76, attended, the now Bryn Mawr-based school was known as Akiba Hebrew Academy and called both Har Zion Temple in Wynnefield — the lower school — and “the castle” in Merion Station home.
Today, the space in Wynnefield is no longer there and Har Zion, which was served for a long time by Wolpe’s father, Rabbi Gerald I. Wolpe, has moved on to Penn Valley. And the Gothic structure where the younger Wolpe went to high school is today Kohelet Yeshiva High School.
Looking back at his formative educational experiences, Wolpe, who presides over the influential Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, is confident that the academic and religious communities he grew up in made him into the Jewish leader he is today.
Barrack back then “was very communal, homey,” Wolpe, who will be honored at the school’s 70th anniversary gala at the Kimmel Center on March 22, said in a recent interview. “It was dominated by a few very powerful personalities, including [the late] Dr. Diane Reisman, the principal, and was kind of a fun, quirky place.”
Yes, “it was just coming off the ’60s,” so Barrack was a hotbed of fervor of all stripes, Wolpe said. But it also instilled in its students a sense of respect for each other and for their community.
In that respect, while Wolpe wouldn’t recognize the physical manifestations of his alma mater, he sees the same animating force behind the present iteration of the school.
“It managed, and it got harder as time went on, to speak to the broad range of the Jewish community,” he explained. “We learned that it wasn’t impossible.”
Factionalism, so apparent throughout the community today, was an afterthought. And that’s something that Wolpe wants to bring back. It’s a topic he stresses to audience after audience, whether from the pulpit or on tour.
“I am constantly amazed by the inability of each side to give credit to the legitimacy of the other side,” he said, pointing to the fallout from the 2016 presidential election. “I practically beg people to believe that the person on the other side is not an idiot or a monster.”
In some respects, the American Jewish community itself has lost focus, as its members get swept up in the politics of the moment.
“We are in a slightly nihilistic moment,” he said. “It definitely diminishes the effectiveness of our community. But I am hopeful that this is a period in history and not a permanent condition.”
What is needed, he posited, is leadership, specifically a leader who can revolutionize how the Jewish community approaches philanthropy and education. To give today’s students the kinds of opportunities he and his peers had — “In my experience, people who went to day schools succeeded in every field,” he said — the cost of day school needs to decrease substantially.
“It’s way too expensive without help for most families,” he explained. “Ideally, what we should have is a nationwide drive to raise money so that every kid who wants one can have a Jewish education. It’s at least as important for the future of American Jewry as all the money that’s [spent on other causes]. This ought to be our great communal priority.”
Wolpe’s case for day school is a simple one, and it’s a case he makes among his own congregants who grapple with where to send their children to school.
“General culture is the default culture,” he said. “It’s what your kids are going to end up in. What takes effort is not to get them to be used to the world, but to understand Judaism.
“This is your chance,” he continued. “You miss this chance, and it’s going to get much harder.”
When he addresses the celebrants at next month’s gala, Wolpe won’t have to make as strong a case for Barrack; the room will be full of people who inherently buy into its mission. But he will point to his own education as indicative of the potential to transform an entire community into something more communal than what exists today.
“I’m going to talk about community and what it means to be a community,” he said. “We need [strong], local communities, and we need a sense a general purpose.”
Cementing a Jewish future by nurturing a Jewish present is a large part of that.
“I am, by nature, an optimist, so I am always hopeful that in the hour of need, what we need will emerge,” he concluded. “One leader. Many leaders. One phenomenally gifted philanthropist who will revolutionize one or another of” a variety of issues.
He laughed, and quickly added, “For all I know, Mark Zuckerberg will become a ba’al teshuva.”
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