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Brit Tzedek v'Shalom

Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace

Op-ed: A true leader's torch will shine on

Jewish News of Greater Phoenix

January 2, 2009

By Steve Masters

In the midst of a Hawaii vacation and his transition to the White House, President-elect Barack Obama recently took the time to honor a man dear to me and many, many others across the nation.

"I am deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf," the president-elect wrote in a statement, "a dear friend to Michelle and me."

Rabbi Wolf was a dear friend to our next president, one of the greatest religious voices for social justice in the 20th and 21st centuries - and spiritual guide to a generation.

Like many, I had my first encounter with Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf before I met him. A giant in his field, a leader on issues of peace and cross-cultural respect, he invariably triggered vehement response. He marched in Selma, protested the Vietnam War, called on Jews to work for Israeli-Palestinian peace, endorsed Obama for president - and refused to file down his rough edges. A loving, funny and brilliant man, he was also cantankerous and irascible.

And so I first learned of Rabbi Wolf through the anger of others, in an article so shrill it served only to pique my curiosity - a curiosity I was lucky enough to satisfy when I began my undergraduate studies at Yale, where he then served as the Jewish chaplain. I vividly remember Rabbi Wolf's sermons, in which he would rail against injustice and hypocrisy, with a sharp wit and fierce determination to suffer no fools. One year he castigated the university for harboring anti-Semitism, another he condemned Jewish leaders for failing to uphold the prophetic ideals of our faith.

He fought constantly against complacency - whether in the form of lazy thinking or meek acceptance of intolerable living conditions. He was like a recurring wake-up call, never letting us fall into the ease that privilege can engender.

Rabbi Wolf was, then, a true leader, one who does not check the direction of the wind, nor limit his vision to that of those around him. He modeled for me and for so many others how to live a life full of passion, showing that working for justice not only connects us to those who suffer, but also to the divine - that working for peace is sacred work.

During my first year at Yale, I had countless conversations with Rabbi Wolf about politics, Israel, Judaism and life - and ultimately, he literally changed my life.

I began my freshman year vigorously protesting whenever PLO representatives came to campus; I ended it with the understanding that Israel must negotiate with the PLO, and that peace meant an independent state of Palestine, next to Israel. I have lived the rest of my life guided by Rabbi Wolf's teachings, dedicated to social justice here in the U.S. and the establishment of a just peace in the Middle East.

Many wealthy donors chose not to support Yale's Jewish community as long as Rabbi Wolf was on campus; when he moved on to his work as a pulpit rabbi in and around Chicago, the money flowed. And yet I can't help but feel that what this great spiritual leader bequeathed to those who fell under his guidance was much more precious than the material wealth that came in once he had left.

This past year, after becoming the national president of Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace, I had the honor of working with Rabbi Wolf once again. It shouldn't surprise anyone to learn that Rabbi Wolf was one of the leaders of our national rabbinic cabinet. We jointly published an essay calling on our nation's Jewish leaders to raise their voices in support of the State of Israel as it joined its Arab neighbors at the Annapolis peace conference, and spoke often about the opportunities for peace under an Obama administration.

In his statement, President-elect Obama summed up a life well-lived: "Rabbi Wolf's name is synonymous with service," he wrote, "social action, and the possibility of change. He will be remembered as a loving husband and father, an engaging teacher, a kindhearted shepherd for (his synagogue), and a tireless advocate of peace for the United States, Israel and the world."

In the midst of my sorrow, I am proud to be a small piece of the legacy that Rabbi Wolf has left the world. So many of us whose inner light was lit by the sparks from Rabbi Wolf's torch will proudly and humbly continue to shine that light, to banish darkness from the world.

That I am one of these torch bearers brings me great comfort at this time of great loss.

Steve Masters is president of the Chicago-based Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace.

 

 

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