Isaiah Wohlgemuth, rabbi guided generations

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Emma Stickgold
Globe Correspondent / January 27, 2008

Rabbi Isaiah Wohlgemuth's synagogue was one of the thousands destroyed in the 1938 pogrom that became known as Kristallnacht, and like so many who survived the Nazi concentration camps, he preferred not to be defined by those experiences.

A young rabbi in his early 20s at the time, he had just taken over his father's synagogue in the historic city of Kitzingen, Germany, when he was apprehended not long after the synagogue was obliterated, and sent to Dachau, a concentration camp. He was able to flee to New York after his release a few months later, and became the first spiritual leader of Temple Shaare Tefilah in Norwood.

Rabbi Wohlgemuth, who went on to become a revered and beloved teacher at the Maimonides School in Brookline, died Jan. 6 at his home in New Jersey. He was 92 and had Parkinson's disease.

"There was a gentleness which was combined with an intellectual seriousness - he was very much a man of the 'old school,' " said former student Elliot Cohen, now counselor of the US Department of State.

Reflecting on his own teaching over the years, Rabbi Wohlgemuth recalled: "I vowed I would never cause a Jewish child any anguish or sorrow," in remarks at a 1990 school banquet in his honor. "I tried in all my teaching career to become a friend of my students - never to punish them, but to encourage them with kindness and friendship, and with a sense of humor, that they may enjoy their studies."

In a lilting, nearly singsong voice, Rabbi Wohlgemuth guided many generations of students from around Boston through the nuances and intricacies of the Talmud. His signature five-year course was known to students as "BH," for Biur HaTefillah, a guide to Jewish prayer.

"The world of Jewish text is a difficult one to open up - some people take to it naturally, some people struggle with it, but he made the text accessible to everyone," said Steven Bayme, director of the contemporary Jewish life department of the American Jewish Committee.

"It was about taking prayers seriously, intellectually as well as emotionally," Cohen said. "Prayers are very emotional and private, but he put a kind of intellectual structure and rigor to it."

Rabbi Wohlgemuth often employed the Socratic method of teaching and peppered classes with games and exercises.

"Everything that he taught us was really practical," said Rabbi Fred Hyman of the Congregation Kodimoh in Springfield. "He had an infectious way of teaching. . . . We took away a love of Torah and Jewish tradition as well as an appreciation of general culture."

His course was later turned into a book called "A Guide to Jewish Prayer."

Former student Roberta Sydney of Chestnut Hill recalled Rabbi Wohlgemuth's zest for life and for young people and their understanding of Jewish prayer.

"He had a very soft demeanor, and even when he was being harsh, you could tell that underneath that, he was cracking up, . . . There was an impishness about him," Sydney said.

"He would go slowly, and he would make sure that nobody was left behind - the whole class needed to be ready to move on," said former student Jessica Kram of Newton.

Like comedian David Letterman, he would often tap his pencil to get attention, students recalled.

In blogs, former students recalled that he brought "kavana," the Hebrew word for intention or focus and meaning, to thousands of students.

Rabbi Wohlgemuth started out at the Maimonides School in 1945 and also taught for many years at Hebrew College's Prozdor program, the secondary school division of the college. He was ordained in 1937 at the renowned Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin. He later received his master's from Harvard University and a doctorate in education from the now-defunct Calvin Coolidge College in Boston.

He stopped teaching earlier this decade, but continued to come to the Maimonides School, with one student helping him out of a car and guiding him to the building and another helping him put on his tefillin.

Many would go to his nursing home in Brookline on Saturday afternoons to study with him while noshing on cookies. He moved to New Jersey earlier this year.

His wife, Berta, whom he married in 1943, died in 2003. He leaves a son, Shlomoh of Elizabeth, N.J., and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Services were held.

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