Celebrating Rabbi Joey Wolf
Celebrating Rabbi Joey Wolf
Tonight a sell-out crowd of 320 members of the Portland area community and visitors from as far away as Jerusalem will gather at the Mittleman Jewish Community Center to honor Rabbi Joey Wolf, who retires this month after 30 years as Havurah's spiritual leader. Rabbi Joey has been a voice of conscience and compassion in our community and beyond for many decades. Below is an excerpt of a story about Rabbi Joey in the April issue of Oregon Jewish Life written by Elizabeth Schwartz.
When Rabbi Joey Wolf moved to Portland in the late 1980s, Portland’s synagogues were known as “The Big Three” – Beth Israel (Reform), Neveh Shalom (Conservative) and Shaarie Torah (traditional). But there was an emerging fourth, Havurah Shalom, which hired Rabbi Joey in 1987. Over the last 30 years, Rabbi Joey has shepherded HS through numerous changes. This month, Havurah and Wolf celebrate his 30-year tenure with a weekend of events, which will launch Rabbi Joey’s retirement.
A native of Boston, Rabbi Joey was ordained in the Conservative Movement, after attending Brandeis University and the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. In his first posting as a senior rabbi, he served Agudas Achim, a large Conservative congregation in Austin, TX.
“It was a generic large synagogue,” Rabbi Joey says. “I was a necktie rabbi and I didn’t like it. I felt really constrained; there were so any expectations about what a rabbi was and what kinds of work and relationships I was expected to fulfill.”
In 1987, Rabbi Joey heard about an opening at Havurah, flew up to interview and, to use his word, was immediately “enraptured.” He adds that “I couldn’t believe the colorfulness of people, their questions, what they cared about, what was important to them. I was blown away. I said, ‘This is where the work is.’ ”
When he arrived, Rabbi Joey found the members of his new community (affectionately known as ‘Havurahniks’) “spontaneous, unendingly imaginative and audacious, both spiritually and politically. There were always wonderful people bursting the seams of Jewish life, whether creating a new prayer, doing a dance, taking us to new places to pray, going on a hike, or bringing together people with disparate interests, like astrology. Services weren’t some standard brand form.”
In those days, HS did not have its own building and held Friday night services at the Mittleman Jewish Community Center. “We averaged between 40 and 50 people per service, and our demographic skewed young; the average age of the people was 29-30. It was a different kind of spiritual experience.”
One central facet of Havurah Shalom is its conscious choice to highlight its community identity, as its name suggests, rather than its rabbi.
“That was music to my ears,” says Rabbi Joey. “There’s a lot of intention in congregants saying, ‘We want to be in the driver’s seat. We want to demand of ourselves that we lead our own services, that we figure out what counts in Jewish life, living, worship, etcetera.’” Although Rabbi Joey has been a full-time rabbi, he led services only twice a month, which allowed congregants to take on that role on both Friday nights and Saturday mornings. This lay-led model extends to holidays and festivals, as well. Another important aspect of Havurah’s community is the diversity of its membership, particularly its interfaith couples.