Community Members Reflect on the Life of Rabbi Wohlgemuth
Boston's Jewish community and American Jewry have lost a great friend and peerless teacher, mentor and guide…
Rabbi Isaiah Wohlgemuth was part of a "greatest generation" of Jewish leadership who helped to rejuvenate an American Jewish community badly in need of educational leadership. During his tenure at Maimonides he influenced thousands of young people, including my own children. He was a gentle man and a beautiful teacher with a brilliant mind and a clear philosophy. He represented, with Rabbi Soloveitchik, a vision of Torah deeply rooted in traditional sources and also directed at the betterment of all humankind.
Back in 1993 Rabbi Wohlgemuth and his wife journeyed from Brookline to Kitzingen, Germany, his native city, for the rededication of his synagogue there that somehow survived the flames and looting of Kristallnacht…. Rabbi Wohlgemuth spoke at the rededication service: "Even though I have asked myself many times if I have done the right thingbecause my family was massacred by the Germans, as was my wife's familyI know finally that by doing this it will make it easier for the Jews and the Germans of the next generation to live together.”
This is the spirit of Rabbi Wohlgemuth...this is the spirit of Maimonides...this is the spirit of Jewish education to which our community aspires.… May all of us find comfort in the spirit, the community, the students and the vision that Rabbi Wohlgemuth left as his enduring legacy.
President, Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston
There was once a time when a rabbi hadn’t a chance of being provided with a guide when entering teaching. An experienced faculty member formally appointed to mentor and care for the novice was unheard of! And yet, when thinking of Rabbi Wohlgemuth I must think of how he played this role, how his presence and guidance had profound impact upon me. Without his help and wisdom, it would be hard to imagine that I would have taught at Maimonides for 17 years sensing that I was carrying on a teaching tradition that combined warmth, respect for the student, edelkeit (the English just doesn’t do it), and thoughtful involvement with the Torah.
It is likely that I would never have come to Maimonides at all were it not for Rabbi Wohlgemuth. I was in teaching in Phoenix, and one of the first graduates of Maimonides’ high school, Ada (Greenwald) Jacobowitz '53, told me that I ought to be teaching in Boston. But she wanted to double check firstand it was Rabbi Wohlgemuth whom she called to check, as she felt he would best understand whether it was a good choice for the school and for me. He (thankfully) said yes, and got the process going. Once I got to Boston, I found Ada correct about one other thingRabbi Wohlgemuth exemplified what the school is about.
Can a teacher be warm and demanding? Can a teacher live a school’s agenda yet retain his own persona? In my first few years at Maimonides, as I discovered what it was to be a teacher, Rabbi Wohlgemuth presented the model. Every student deserved a smile, and every student deserved a deep understanding of prayer. The capabilities of a student were important, and the heart of the student and commitment to Judaism were important. Being a talmid chacham was vitally important, and having an advanced academic degree important too. Surviving the Holocaust was important, but not unless you build the future.
Of course, to teach in a school inspired by Rav Soloveitchik was a big draw. Yet, in 1983, a teacher entering Maimonides needed access to the school’s traditions, needed a guide to see the Rav’s influence. Rabbi Wohlgemuth was a living doc file of relevant halachic statements of the Rav as it concerned students. Can you drink grape juice for the four cups on Pesach? Should you make a misheberach for a non-Jew? Do you bend over backwards to retain a difficult student, or do you give priority to the religious and academic standards of the school? These are all things that Rabbi Wohlgemuth had already discussed with the Rav. (And then, there were the stories…)
But finally, there was the personal touch. Rabbi Wohlgemuth deeply and graciously cared about each person he talked to, and a teacher at the beginning needs a lot of care. But it did not end at the beginning, for I would ask his opinion as long as I could. As he was for so many people, he was there for me, ready with advice based on worlds of experience, the depth of Yahadut, and ahavah. Always.
Rabbi Moshe Simkovich
My name is Sheldon Bramson and I attended Maimonides between 1946 and 1956. During that time I had the privilege to know the Wohlgemuth family. The Rabbi was not only my family’s spiritual leader at Roxbury Young Israel and teacher at the yeshivah, he was also our friend... I was in the same class with Shlomoh and we spent much time together when I lived in Roxbury. At the times of our Bar Mitzvah my two siblings and I were all tutored by the Rabbi for the drashah that Rav Soloveitchik, z”l, had written.
After graduating college I spent three years in the Army working as an assistant to a number of Rabbis. During the last 20 months of my enlistment, I was stationed in Wurzburg, Germany. When my parents told Rabbi Wohlgemuth, z”l, of my whereabouts he asked if I would visit his parents' graves in Kitzingen and perform the mitzvah for him. I found the Judische Gemeinde and the gentile caretaker took me to the family plot. I cleaned the area and recited the appropriate hazkorahs. Later that day I wrote the Rabbi and thanked him for allowing me to be his shaliach. I saw him when I returned home and he thanked and hugged me as if I were his son.
Many years later the Rabbi officiated at the funerals and unveilings of my parents. On each occasion when I went to thank him he would recall what I had done in Kitzingen and he thanked me for allowing him to be my family’s shaliach. That is the kind of man he was. “Zcher Tzadik Livracha.”
He was an inspiration to the entire family because of so many amazing character traits we all attempted to emulate. Above all he realized what the essence of education was... Each child was a flower and his duty was to water the bed surrounding the flower, with rich nutrients, each specific for that flower, in the hope that the flower would eventually grow and thrive to become exactly what its genetic code had planned. Each child for Rabbi Wohlgemuth was a flower and had to be treated specially, to foster his or her own unique talents by providing the correct nourishment that would inspire and develop his or her own neshama.
He himself was a shining light, a beacon of modesty sensitivity and compassion. We never ever heard an angry word from his lips. We never heard him get upset. All we experienced was utter patience and compassion for his students. His modesty and self-effacement was legendary. He never promoted himself, never sought the limelight, rather he attracted customers for his shiurim and study groups by his sheer majesty and dignity.
Our children were inspired by his gentleness and depth. He seemed to understand the text in ways they had never appreciated before. Especially his approach to the siddur which combined the mastery of text with the very nature of tefillah and the emotional needs embedded in the text. From him they learned to see a way to articulate emotions within the fixed nature of prayer like a Bach prelude, so disciplined in its meter and style nevertheless brimming with contained emotion.
Inheriting his approach from the Hirsh tradition and his German native weltanschauung, as well as his devotion to the Rov, we were treated to a beautiful blend that lent intellectual credence and rigor to his sympathetic and gentle interpretations of say the siddur, his lasting legacy.
The Ungar-Sargon Family
Rabbi Isaiah Wohlgemuth was, above all, a master teacher who few could match and who was able to instill a love of learning into all of his students. He cared and empathized with each of his students and they reciprocated with their admiration and respect. We know this because, not only did our three daughters, Chaya, Rochel, and Laurie have Rabbi Wohlgemuth as a teacher in Maimonides School, but we ourselves took his legendary Beur HaTefila course when he offered it to members of the Rav’s minyan.
We knew Rabbi Wohlgemuth, not only as a teacher but also as a friend. We davened in the same shul and were one of the few Maimonides families that lived on the other side of Route 9 within blocks of the Wohlgemuths. They enjoyed the outdoors and liked walking around Jamaica Pond. Every spring, we joined the Wohlgemuths on an outing to climb to the top of Mount Monadnock. We shall miss Rabbi and Berta Wohlgemuth but we cherish fond memories of them.
Helen and Wolf Walter