Sunday, September 21, 2014 Elul 26, 5774

A Legacy U​ndiminished

May 21, 2009
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The passing of Rabbi Gerald I. Wolpe, who died this week at the age of 81, marks the end of an era for Philadelphia Jewry.

His legacy extends well beyond Har Zion Temple, the influential congregation where he served as the much-beloved religious leader for 30 years. Though he stepped down from his pulpit a decade ago, he continued to play a vital role in the field of medical ethics, known nationally for his writings and teachings on care-giving and medical education, much of it stemming from his own experiences caring for his wife, Elaine, following two aneurysms that left her debilitated.

Among his progeny, he leaves behind four sons -- two rabbis and two bioethicists, all accomplished in their own right.

But his role as one of the most prominent Conservative rabbis in what was long a Conservative-dominated town cannot be underestimated.

His was a time when few questioned a rabbi's stature as majestic leader and inspiring teacher. Wolpe fit the part beautifully, especially his ability to deliver a sermon. As one longtime congregant, Ralph Snyder, who helped recruit the rabbi from Harrisburg to Har Zion in 1969, told a Jewish Exponent reporter at Wolpe's funeral on Tuesday: "He was able to marry prose and poetry, Bible and current events to deliver a magnificent sermon every single Saturday."

In his day, the rabbi's authority, particularly in religious matters, went unquestioned. Wolpe used that authority to become an early advocate for egalitarianism in the Conservative movement, pushing Har Zion to become one of the first congregations in the area to count women in a minyan and to empower them to be called to the Torah for aliyot.

He also presided over a divisive move from Har Zion's Wynnefield's roots, where residents saw the synagogue as an integral part of their neighborhood "shtetl." When he retired in 1999, Wolpe pointed to that 1976 move as the most momentous in his career. "It was dramatic, necessary and fatiguing," he told the Exponent at the time.

Today, both the Conservative movement and the role of the rabbi remains in flux. Long before the national handwringing in the movement over its loss of members and direction, Wolpe spoke out about the need to reinvigorate this stream of Judaism, to adopt new methods to retain young members and to inspire them to lead committed Jewish lives.

In this age of do-it-yourself, Synaplex Judaism, congregations searching for a new rabbi often find themselves wrestling with just what it is they are looking for. Many rabbis, too, seek a new model, discarding the mantle of the all-powerful leader who's on the job 24/7. Wolpe represented the last of a generation of rabbis, but even amid the new models, his legacy and his teachings endure. 

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