By Dr. Paul E. Brody
This 13th of Adar (Ta’anis Esther, erev Purim), marks the 15th yahrzeit of our dear Rabbi Dr. Ephraim R. Wolf, Rav Ephraim Reuven ben Nachum Chaim, zt’l. The Modern Orthodox community in Great Neck was shaped by him. When Rabbi Wolf became the spiritual leader of the Great Neck Synagogue (GNS) in 1956, the strong denominations on the peninsula were Reform and Conservative. At the time, Orthodoxy was perceived to be outmoded and declining, out of touch with modern society. “Through his force of personality, Rabbi Wolf was able to give a legitimacy to Orthodoxy that Great Neck might otherwise not have had,” according to Rabbi Dale Polakoff, who in 1988 succeeded Rabbi Wolf as rabbi of the Great Neck Synagogue, a Modern Orthodox congregation with close to 600 families.
Today, Orthodoxy is not only accepted, but is also thriving in Great Neck. In Rabbi Wolf’s early days in Great Neck, that was far from the case. With his humble manner, sense of tolerance, and an extraordinary ability to connect with people no matter what background they came from, Rabbi Wolf was able to bridge the gap. Stanley H. Fischer, Esq., a former president of GNS during Rabbi Wolf’s tenure, related that Rabbi Wolf regularly visited Jewish patients at North Shore University Hospital, whether or not they had any affiliation. Rabbi Wolf would deliver a welcome package to all new Jewish residents of whom he was aware, and bring a special berachah plaque to hang above the crib of a newborn baby boy before the brit milah. I can personally attest to this, as we received one when our son Joey was born in 1999, and Rabbi Wolf was already the rabbi emeritus. Dr. Mel Breite told me that when he first moved to Great Neck, in the 1970s, and Rabbi Wolf learned of some needed sukkah repairs, he appeared at the Breite residence the very next day with a brand-new sukkah!
Rabbi Wolf was devoted with all his heart and soul to our Holy Land. Everyone from Great Neck who traveled to Israel became a “shaliach mitzvah,” whether they were asked by Rabbi Wolf to deliver tennis balls for underprivileged kids to play with, or letters for posting (with the stamps affixed already), or to take much needed dental supplies. Rabbi Wolf always referred to his congregants as “You beautiful people,” and he meant it with all his heart.
The Great Neck community grew rapidly. Rabbi Wolf, with the capable assistance of his wife, Rebbetzin Elaine Wolf, zt’l, established the North Shore Hebrew Academy (NSHA), a coeducational yeshiva that now has more than 1,100 students from nursery through high school, on four campuses in Great Neck. He also established the mikveh (which, in order to gain village approval, was initially referred to as a wading pool), and worked countless hours gaining approval for the Great Neck eiruv. All of these achievements helped shape Great Neck into the bastion of Orthodoxy that it is today, eventually serving as home to the Young Israel of Great Neck, two Chabad shuls, as well as many Sephardic congregations, including Israeli, Persian, and Iraqi synagogues. For all of his great accomplishments, a section of Old Mill Road, where the Great Neck Synagogue is situated, is named “Rabbi Wolf Way.”
Rabbi Wolf’s involvement in Jewish causes was known well beyond the confines of Great Neck. Stanley and Jacqui Fischer remember being in a small town in a distant state, and a man in an ice-cream shop asked them where they lived. When they said “Great Neck,” he replied, “Please send my best to your esteemed rabbi: Rabbi Wolf!”
In the early days, Rabbi Wolf drove the bus to make sure students got to school at NSHA. On snowy days, Rabbi Wolf shoveled snow off sidewalks, recalled Sharon Goldwyn, a congregant who was a student at the North Shore Hebrew Academy in its early days and whose parents, Solomon and Belle, z’l, were among the founders of both the school and the synagogue. When snow got into her boots, Rabbi Wolf went back to her home to make sure that she had dry socks and shoes. She couldn’t learn Torah if her feet were wet and cold, Rabbi Wolf told her!
Rabbi Wolf studied at Mesivta Torah Vodaas in Brooklyn, at Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore, and at Yeshiva Tifereth Israel in Israel. His early pulpits were in Malden, Massachusetts, and in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylania. where he established yeshiva day schools. His entire life was devoted to kiruv rechokim (bringing Jews closer to Judaism) because he loved Torah and always sought ways to share that love. Rabbi Wolf was very active in the project of Zeirei Agudath Israel headed by Mr. Mike Tress, and Mesivta Torah Vodaas, headed by Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, zt’l. He wanted to do something for boys growing up in cities too small to support yeshivos. Rabbi Wolf was one of the “recruiters” who would travel to outlying areas, even sleeping in railway stations, with a list of boys who might be interested in coming to learn in Mesivta Torah Vodaas. Rabbi Wolf was a very practical man, and strove to do whatever possible to preserve Torah. He always had in mind what could be done in order to save a Jewish soul for Yiddishkeit.
Rabbi Wolf shunned publicity, but, according to Menachem Porush, the former Israeli Knesset member, whenever someone will write about a practical deed which was done for Torah and education in Eretz Yisrael and in America, the name of Rabbi Ephraim R. Wolf will be mentioned prominently as one of the outstanding, devoted activists in this holy field.
There are many more wonderful things to say about our dear Rabbi Wolf, zt’l, that are expressed often by myriad others around the world who are lucky enough to have known him. Permit me to focus on just one of the many traits that I personally experienced. When my wife, Drora, and I moved to Great Neck with our family in 1993, Rabbi Wolf had already assumed the position of rabbi emeritus of GNS. I observed that both Rabbi and Rebbetzin Wolf would very modestly try not to intervene in the daily goings-on of the synagogue, so as not to give the appearance of “still running the shul.” But one thing that Rabbi Wolf couldn’t resist was trying to make newcomers or strangers to the synagogue feel welcome. On many occasions, Rabbi Wolf would say to me, “Paul, you’re a friendly guy. Why don’t you go over and say ‘Shalom Aleichem’ to that gentleman over there and make him feel at home!”
Of course, when I went over and welcomed someone, I always felt really good about it. To this day, when somebody I do not recognize comes to the shul, I try to follow Rabbi Wolf’s sage advice, which invariably gives me the impetus to go over and welcome him. This is just one striking example of Rabbi Wolf’s sensitivity and caring for others. I used to greet Rabbi Wolf every Shabbos with a jocular “Thanks for coming, Rabbi; I know it’s your day off!” This always made him chuckle, and he would even repeat it to others. But, in all seriousness, my dear Rabbi Wolf, “Thanks for coming!”
May Rabbi Wolf’s neshamah have an aliyah and may his memory be a blessing for us all, particularly for his wife, Rebbitzen Elaine Wolf, zt’l, his children Shimon and Hennie of Kew Gardens, and Dr. Dahvid and Leah Wolf of Meitar, Israel, and for his many grandchildren and great-grandchildren, ken yirbu. In the past year and a half, four great-grandchildren and one great-nephew named Ephraim Reuven celebrated their bar mitzvah.