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The Sunday Profile : In Good Faith : Values. Education. Jewish culture. They're just a few of Rabbi Wolf's passions. No wonder he can't slow down.

October 29, 1995|MARY ROURKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a noisy restaurant in the Mid-Wilshire District, Rabbi Alfred Wolf begins speaking in Hebrew. Eyes cast down on his bowl of soup, he is talking to God, praying over lunch. Even at his own table, nobody takes notice. Still, this blessing quietly calls attention to Wolf's world, where prayer and a public life are not strangers.

He turned 80 this month. That puts him 60 years into his life as a German immigrant-turned-American citizen, 50-odd years into his time as a husband and father, and 46 years into his life as rabbi, then rabbi emeritus, at Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles.

But he began his toughest job even earlier. As a teen-ager in 1930s Germany, Wolf took up the unpopular cause of ending racial, religious and cultural prejudice. One of only two Jewish students in his public school, he led classmates on tours of his synagogue. "Even in Germany, I felt the main reason for Hitler's success was that people didn't know anything about Jews," he says. "There was more ignorance and folk beliefs than knowledge."

Other men have made a career of memorializing that injustice. In Wolf, it ignited a lifelong desire to invigorate causes he holds dear. Jewish culture, religious education, interfaith dialogue, even summer camping have felt the effects.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Monday October 30, 1995 Home Edition Life & Style Part E Page 2 View Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Sunday profile--Rabbi Alfred Wolf of Wilshire Boulevard Temple and his wife, Miriam, have been married for 55 years. A profile in Sunday's Life & Style misstated the length of their union.

Now his attention is on the state of American society. Since 1985, when he retired from active duty as senior rabbi, Wolf has been director of the Skirball Institute on American Values, an agency of the American Jewish Committee. "We study and promote the contents of the U.S. Constitution," he says.

Founded by the late Jack Skirball, who also helped start the Skirball Cultural Center--which opens next month in West Los Angeles--the institute produces research projects, teaching manuals and conferences. At the moment, Wolf is preparing for an interfaith dialogue that will explore how we can change our values.

"So much of our treasury of values has been taken for granted," he says. "What is forgotten too often in the chaotic element of democracy is the clear and guiding principles that were there from the beginning."

A youthful passion for justice boils within him. In 80 years it has steamed open quite a personal story.

"I got to Cincinnati in a very romantic way," Wolf says of his migration to this country. Born in Eberbach, he entered a Hebrew seminary in Berlin after public school. By then, Hitler was in power. In 1935, at age 20, Wolf and four other students took part in an exchange-student program with Hebrew Union, an affiliated college in Ohio. He didn't understand that his life was at stake. But Julian Morgenstern, president of the Berlin seminary, did.

"It was the first organized attempt to get Jewish people trained in religion out of Germany," Wolf explains. "I credit my life to Dr. Morgenstern."

His parents, grandparents and aunt were deported to an internment camp in the Pyrenees. His grandfather died there. But in 1941, five days before the United States declared war on Germany, Wolf obtained visas for his relatives. "Everybody left [from that camp] was sent to Poland and killed," he says.

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He begins this conversation in his office overlooking the temple's schoolyard. It is a room filled with books, family photographs and pictures of the rabbi posing with the world's religious leaders, including Pope John Paul II on his 1987 visit to Los Angeles. His wife, Miriam, made the ceramic tiles inlaid in a wooden arc, a cupboard-like container for the sacred scrolls of the Torah.

As Wolf tells his story, he suggests a tour of the temple, the city's oldest Jewish Reform temple, then sets off with a substantial set of keys. Selectively, he unlocks doors, including one that opens into a small chapel. More than 30 years ago, as the youngest of three rabbis on the temple staff, he recalls convincing his seniors of the need for this smaller space for Friday evening services. The main sanctuary--built in 1928 with stained-glass windows that attract visitors interested in art as well as religion--can accommodate all but 500 of the congregation's 2,500 members.

He leads the way, past display cases of ritual vessels and antique silver spice boxes used for Sabbath meals. Absorbed in telling the congregation's rich history, he always stands back to let others pass through a doorway. Wolf seems unconscious of his Old World manners, and of his sturdy good looks; he is ruggedly tan from years of hiking the Los Feliz hills near his home and muscular from daily swimming.

As the tour ends, he says, "I have to call my boss." Then he dials Miriam. She does the better job of describing the couple's courtship and early years of marriage. "It took a flood for us to meet," she begins. It was 1937, Cincinnati was under water and Hebrew Union had to close. Wolf went to Dayton, invited home by a classmate, where he met Miriam at a party. The next thing she knew, she was engaged.

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