“Who is guaranteed a portion in the ‘world to come’?” the Talmud asks in Sanhedrin 8b. “One who is humble, lowly of knee, bends as he goes in and bends as he goes out … and never takes credit for himself.”
Few of us — perhaps even none — will ever have such words spoken about us, even during the flowery language of comfort offered in a eulogy. But those were the words used to describe one quiet community leader who died last week after a battle with cancer.
Mel Wolf was a pillar of the community, a volunteer who worked behind the scenes to make things happen. He was as likely to attend a board meeting as visit the hardware store to pick up supplies for his synagogue. He shied away from honors and tribute dinners. You can’t visit a building named after him.
Rabbi Moshe Kletenik of Bikur Cholim-Machzikay Hadath explained how the quote from Talmud applied to Mr. Wolf at a funeral attended by people from across the breadth of the community. Fellow synagogue members, other Holocaust survivors, volunteers from the organizations he served such as the Hebrew Free Loan Association, the Washington State Holocaust Education Resource Center and the Jewish Federation, plus people he worked with during 34 years as a sewing machine repairman at Sears Roebuck all filled the chapel to overflowing at the Bikur Cholim Cemetary. Some of the qualities the rabbi mentioned included humility, physical and mental strength, unpretentiousness, generosity, choosing to live a modest lifestyle.
“I think this captures the essence of the life of Mel Wolf. He was a brilliant man, very wise. People constantly sought out his advice and yet he always referred to himself as a simple man,” Kletenik said.
The rabbi shared several stories from the last months of Mr. Wolf’s life. A few days before Yom Kippur, he visited him at home. Already very ill, Mr. Wolf told the rabbi he would be at Kol Nidre services on the eve of Yom Kippur “no matter what,” and added that he would try to attend Yom Kippur morning services, if he was able. “I know this is the last time I will be able to come and daven (pray) in shul,” Mr. Wolf told the rabbi.
On Yom Kippur morning, the gabbai, or service “coordinator” came over to his seat and offered Mr. Wolf, an aliyah, an opportunity to say the blessing before the Torah is read, which is considered a great honor. At first he accepted and then, one minute later, with tears in his eyes, he called the gabbai back over. “There are so many people here, give it to someone more worthy and deserving than me,” he said, according to the rabbi.
“No one was more deserving that Mel Wolf,” Kletenik added.
Born Menasche Wolf in Jedlicze, Poland, in 1924, he died on Jan. 3 at age 75. Before immigrating to the United States in 1951, he spent more than five years in concentration camps and work camps during the Holocaust and then time in a displaced persons camp in Germany, where he met his wife, Ilse, who died in 1995. Most of his immediate family died during the Shoa. Ilse and Mel had three children, Hinda, Sherry (Lonnie) and Fred (Charlene); and three grandchildren, Amanda, Alexis and Shelby Wolf. He also is survived by cousins in New York and Israel and Ruth Glass of Seattle.