In the midst of a Hawaii vacation and his transition to the White House, President-elect Barack Obama recently took 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," Obama wrote in a statement, "a dear friend to Michelle and me."
Rabbi Wolf was rabbi emeritus of Chicago's Reform congregation KAM Isaiah Israel, located across the street from the Obama residence. He was one of the greatest religious voices for social justice in the 20th and 21st centuries -- and spiritual guide to a generation -- died Dec. 23 at the age of 83.
Like many, my first encounter with Rabbi Wolf came before I ever met him.
A giant in his field, a leader on issues of peace and cross-cultural respect, Rabbi Wolf's thoughts 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, more willing to pound his fist than to soft-pedal anything.
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, when 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; in 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. Listeners would marvel at his temerity and the power that comes from speaking truth to the mighty.
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 the rabbi about politics, Israel, Judaism and life, and ultimately, he literally changed mine.
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 United States 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 closely 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, Obama summed up a life well-lived: "Rabbi Wolf's name is synonymous with service, 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.
Arthur Spiegelman, Journalist, 68
Arthur Spiegelman, journalist and longtime correspondent for Reuters, died at home in Los Angeles on Dec. 20. He was 68. Born and raised in the Bronx, N.Y., Spiegelman began working at Reuters in 1966 as London correspondent, later transferring to New York in 1973 to serve as chief editor and national correspondent.
In 1997, he moved to Los Angeles and reported primarily on the entertainment industry. In his 42 years with Reuters, Spiegelman covered the U.S. presidential campaigns between 1976 and 1996, John Lennon's murder, the Gulf War and the O.J. Simpson murder trial. In 2006, Spiegelman was honored as one of Reuters's journalists of the year.
He is survived by his wife, Charlotte; sons, Adam and Michael; and brother, Marvin. Services were held at Hillside.
Arthur Spiegelman is shown in this undated photo in his Los Angeles office. REUTERS/Family of Arthur Spiegelman/Handout