In Memoriam

Great Neck recalls Rabbi Wolf on 20th yahrzeit


The 13th of Adar, erev Purim, marks the 20th 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 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.

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, established the North Shore Hebrew Academy and a 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 as well as to many Sephardic congregations, including Israeli, Persian, and Iraqi synagogues.

In the early days, Rabbi Wolf drove the bus to make sure students got to school. On snowy days, he shoveled snow off sidewalks, recalled Sharon Goldwyn, a congregant and a student at the North Shore Hebrew Academy in its early days, whose parents were among the founders of both the school and the synagogue. When snow got in 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!

When my wife Drora and I and our family moved to Great Neck in 1993, Rabbi Wolf already had assumed the position of rabbi emeritus of GNS. I observed that both Rabbi and Rebbetzin Wolf would 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!” To this day, when somebody comes to the shul whom I do not recognize, 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 that exhibited 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. But in all seriousness, my dear rabbi, thanks for coming!

May Rabbi Wolf’s neshamah have an aliyah and may his memory — along with that of his wife, Rebbetzin Elaine Wolf, a”h — be a blessing for us all, his children Shimon and Hennie of Kew Gardens, and Dr. Dahvid and Leah Wolf of Meitar, Israel, and his many grandchildren and great-grandchildren, ken yirbu.