September 23, 2019

Rabbi Alfred Wolf

Rabbi Alfred Wolf, who pioneered Jewish summer camps and the interfaith movement on the West Coast, died Aug. 1 at the age of 88.

Throughout his life, he strove for his self-described goal "to serve as a catalyst in bringing people together, despite personal and ideological differences."

Wolf served as rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, the oldest Reform congregation in Los Angeles, for 36 years, from 1949 to 1985.

After his retirement, he started a new career as founding director of the Skirball Institute on American Values, sponsored by the American Jewish Committee.

As founding president of the Inter-Religious Council of Southern California, Wolf brought together the region’s Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist leaders. During the 1984 Olympic Games, he and the council organized inter-religious services and lobbied for placement of a mosque at the Olympic venue.

Wolf was born in Eberbach, Germany in 1915. The only Jewish student in his public school grade, he characteristically led his Christian classmates on a field trip to a synagogue for a discussion of Jewish beliefs and customs.

"I felt that the main reason for Hitler’s success in Germany was that people didn’t know anything about Jews," he later observed.

He started his religious studies at Berlin’s Institute for Jewish Studies in 1935 and said he owed his life to accepting an offer to become an exchange student at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Cincinnati.

Wolf’s first job on the West Coast was as regional director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. During his three-year tenure, he established Reform congregations in 12 Southern California communities, among them Temple Isaiah and Leo Baeck Temple in West Los Angeles and Temple Beth Hillel in North Hollywood.

In an interview with The Jewish Journal a decade ago, he described this feat as "the most unlikely accomplishment of my life."

An avid hiker and swimmer, Wolf opened his temple’s Camp Hess Kramer in Malibu in 1952, which became the prototype for the American Jewish youth camping movement.

In 1965, Wolf was president of L.A. County Commission on Human Relations during the devastating Watts riots, and always felt that the loss of life and property could have been averted if the city’s police chief had accepted the commission’s earlier recommendations. In 1993, he co-chaired the first Nationwide Conference for Catholic, Jewish and Protestant Seminaries.

Wolf taught at USC, HUC-JIR, Chapman College, Loyola University and Cal State L.A. and was the co-author of two books.

Rabbi Lawrence Goldmark of Temple Beth Ohr of La Mirada served as Wolf’s rabbinical colleague at Wilshire Boulevard Temple during the 1970s, under the legendary Rabbi Edgar F. Magnin.

Although overshadowed in the community by Magnin, informally known as "The Chief Rabbi of California," Wolf was fiercely loyal to his senior rabbi and declined many offers to become the spiritual leader at other congregations, Goldmark said.

"Rabbi Wolf was an intensely creative person and he convinced a skeptical Rabbi Magnin to establish Camp Hess Kramer and the Gindling Hilltop Center," Goldmark recalled.

A handy craftsman, Wolf personally helped build the camp’s amphitheater.

Wolf is survived by his wife of 64 years, Miriam; sons, Dan and David; and four grandchildren. A daughter, Judy Wolf Lee, died of cancer in 1987.

Services were held Wednesday at Wilshire Boulevard Temple.