By ERIN ELLIOTT BRYAN / Community News Editor
In his sermon on the second day of Rosh Hashana, Rabbi Avraham Ettedgui, of Sharei Chesed Congregation, noted that the sudden passing of his longtime friend Rabbi Barry Woolf “shows us how fragile and uncertain our future is in this world.”
“It was said in the context that life is bittersweet,” Ettedgui told the AJW in an e-mail. “We use honey on Rosh Hashana for its sweetness, but also to remind us that life is not always sweet. The source of that honey is bees, which sometimes can sting us. Rabbi Woolf, of blessed memory, taught us how to accept the stings in life with the sweetness.”
Woolf died Sept. 22 at the age of 76. He was buried Sept. 23 at Eretz Hachaim Cemetery in Bet Shemesh, Israel.
Rabbi Yechezkel Greenberg, of Congregation Bais Yisroel, conducted a brief service at the airport on Sept. 23. He said more than 200 people were in attendance — with just a few hours’ notice.
“He touched so many people in so many different areas,” Greenberg told the AJW. “He was such a caring person.”
Woolf was a regular attendee at Greenberg’s nightly Gemara class and was a frequent commenter on Greenberg’s sermons.
“He always had something nice to say,” Greenberg said. “Even if it was a complaint, it’s just nice to hear that someone is listening. He showed interest in everything that was going on. It was really something special.”
Greenberg always appreciated Woolf’s “old-fashioned” and “proper” way of dress, and the honor and respect he showed to those around him. He said a lot of work that Woolf did may still be unknown and his lasting impact remains to be seen.
“He’s leaving a legacy of living his life for other people and living his life for Judaism,” Greenberg said.
Woolf, a native of England, came to the United States in 1968. He first served as a teacher and counselor at a boarding school in Stamford, Conn., and later took a job in Superior, Wisc.
In 1973, Rabbi Woolf came to the Twin Cities and taught at the Talmud Torah of St. Paul. He then served as the Jewish chaplain for Minnesota state hospitals and prisons, and began lecturing at Hazelden, an addiction treatment center in Center City, Minn.
Woolf developed his chaplaincy work with the help of Rabbi Sylvan D. Kamens, a former Twin Cities pulpit rabbi. The two met 40 years ago, when Woolf first came to Superior and Kamens was active in the Minnesota Rabbinical Association.
“That work was a labor of love and made him as familiar as anyone with the total Minnesota Jewish community,” Kamens, who now lives in Boston, told the AJW. “He had a keen sense of where the Twin Cities’ Jewish community should be going, and he worked tirelessly to help in that process.”
Woolf also served as a consultant at the Johnson Institute for Alcohol and Drugs for Minnesota and as a member of the Governor’s Task Force of Minnesota on Drug Abuse. He was the founding rabbi of Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant Others (JACS), and the Jewish Recovery Network of Minnesota, and worked with the annual Twin Cities Jewish community conference on mental health.
He authored On the Road to Recovery: An Inspirational Guide for the Chemically Dependent, and lectured all over the country on issues of mental illness and substance abuse.
In addition to his work with those struggling with personal issues, Woolf worked with Hodroff-Epstein Memorial Chapels for the last 40 years. He officiated funerals for the unaffiliated, comforted those in mourning and performed shmira (sitting with the bodies).
“Everyone who experienced his compassion or were uplifted by his support or who laughed with him, even in the face of sadness, knew that they felt comforted for having spent time with him,” Kamens said.
Mary Baumgarten, who has been friends with the Woolfs for 40 years, agreed.
“He was the kind of friend to me, and to many other people, that we aspire to be in our relationships with other people. He was just always there,” Baumgarten said. “People just felt protected by him, soothed by his counsel. He was the most giving, unassuming person that I knew… He’s the kind of friend that everybody needs to have and wants to have in their lifetime.”
And for Woolf, he felt compelled to comfort those in crisis.
“I’ve always felt that I have to be there for people,” Woolf told the AJW last year. “That’s my mission in life. If God grants me the strength and keeps me well, I have to do that until the rest of my days.”
Woolf is survived by his wife, Zena; son, Chaim (Yael); and four grandchildren, Asher, Naomi, Adam and Noa. (American Jewish World, 10.10.14)
Since 1912 the AJW has served as an important news resource for the Jewish community. The Jewish World unites the main Jewish communities in St. Paul and Minneapolis, as well as those in Duluth, Rochester and smaller cities, and bridges the divides between the various Jewish religious streams.