Rabbi Gerald I. Wolpe, Rabbi Emeritus of Har Zion Temple, died Monday, May 18 after a courageous battle with pancreatic cancer.
For 30 years, Rabbi Wolpe was the spiritual leader of Har Zion Temple, a powerful 1,400-family Philadelphia synagogue. His retirement in the Spring of 1999, and the synagogue’s search for a replacement, became the subject of the acclaimed 2002 book, “The New Rabbi” by Stephen Fried.
Gerald Wolpe was also the father of Rabbi David Wolpe, senior rabbi at Temple Sinai in Los Angeles, California.
Born in 1927 in Boston, Rabbi Wolpe was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1953 where he also received a doctorate of divinity. He served as a Chaplain in the Second Marine Division and pulpit rabbi in Charleston, SC and Harrisburg, PA before coming to Har Zion in 1969.
Well known within religious and academic circles as an expert in bioethics, caregiving and medical education, Rabbi Wolpe served as director of the Louis Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary from 1997 to 2002. From 1996 to July 1999 he served as chairman of the advisory committee of the Bioethics Center at the University of Pennsylvania. He served as a member of the Executive Committee of the Aphasia Society, the Advisory Committee of the Families and Health Care Project of the United Hospital Fund and was a resource expert in Jewish Bioethics for the “Ask the Rabbi” website of America Online. His chapter “A Crisis of Caregiving, A Crisis of Faith,” appeared in the book, Always on Call: When Illness Turns Families Into Caregivers, published in October 2000.
Rabbi Wolpe lectured frequently on bioethics. According to an 2007 article in The Daily Pennsylvannian, he consulted with the producers of the television medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy” for advice on plot lines, especially those involving the impact of death on medical students.
His previous academic positions include lecturer on bioethics and health legislation at Yale University, Clinical Assistant Professor at Hahnemann Medical College/Medical College of Pennsylvania and lecturer on professional education at the Thomas Jefferson University.
Rabbi Wolpe’s service to the Philadelphia community has included membership on the Boards of Directors of the Federation of Jewish Agencies and Akiba Academy and he is a past President of the Board of Rabbis of the Greater Delaware Valley. He also served as Chairman of the Journalistic Standards Committee for The Jewish Exponent.
“What we missed most was his voice,” writes Fried in the opening chapter of “The New Rabbi.” “Our rabbi could make the most stilted English translation of prayer sound like Shakespeare. His voice was muscular and musical, with an accent that sounded vaguely British at first, but later revealed itself to be all-American, with leftover ‘aahs from Boston.
“This was not like the voice of God. Rabbis do not aspire to divinity. They have jobs in an industry that has, like many others, shifted from manufacturing to service. Rabbis are employees, religion workers, with unions and contracts and job-related injuries. They have to negotiate dental with the very congregants they must inspire.
“Still, while rabbis do not speak for God, some of them have God-given gifts. Rabbi Gerald Wolpe’s gift was his voice.
“My dad had a story he loved to tell about the day when Wolpe took the makeshift stage of a flatbed truck in the parking lot of the Harrisburg Jewish Community Center. It was the summer of 1967, the height of the Six-Day War. And the rabbi brought home this crisis from halfway across the world with such eloquent urgency that my parents were inspired to pledge to Israel, then and there, every last cent they had saved for brand-new wall-to-wall carpeting. Anyone who ever saw the mud-gray shag they wanted to replace would have to agree this qualified as a miracle. And it was documented for posterity. There was a record album made of the speech. My parents bought that, too.
But then Rabbi Wolpe left us. And we never forgave him for taking the voice away.”
Rabbi Wolpe is survived by his wife Elaine, sons Paul, Stephen, David and Daniel and eight grandchildren.
The funeral will be held on Tuesday, May 19 at 1:00 PM at Har Zion Temple, Penn Valley. Pennsylvania. The family will be sitting shivah in Pennsylvania at the Wolpe residence.
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