Wolfe Kelman, Rabbinic Leader of Conservative Jewry, Dead at 66

One of the most revered spiritual leaders of the Conservative community in American Jewry, Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, died here Tuesday at New York University Medical Center, after a long battle with cancer. He was 66 years old.

“If anyone embodied Ahavat Yisrael (love of fellow Jew), it was him,” said Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel. “He was always seeking to bring honor to the Jewish people.”

Kelman served for 38 years as executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly of America, the rabbinical arm of Conservative Judaism.

Kelman, who was also adjunct assistant professor in Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, was a primary spokesperson for Conservative Judaism and was often quoted in major publications.

During the late 1970s, he was a leader in the movement to allow women to be ordained as rabbis by JTS. Following his retirement from the R.A., Kelman remained at the seminary to direct the Louis Finklestein Institute of Religious and Social Studies.

“Wolfe literally helped change the course of Jewish history in this country and in other parts of the world,” reflected Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, one of Kelman’s oldest and closest friends. “It will take some time before the Jewish community realizes the magnitude of his contribution.”

Rabbi Joel Meyers, Kelman’s successor at the Rabbinical Assembly, remembers the tremendous passion for which he held the rabbinate and each individual rabbi. “He was always ready to drop anything to help a colleague, to help anyone from all spectrums of Jewish life,” said Meyers.

A ‘STORY FOR EVERY OCCASION’

Tanenbaum, international relations consultant to the American Jewish Committee and immediate past chairman of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, remembers first seeing Kelman in uniform at JTS, where both future leaders were roommates.

“His qualities astounded me,” said Tanenbaum. “He had a rabbinic saying or Hasidic story for every occasion, using them even when meeting Vatican officials about difficult issues.”

Born in Vienna in 1923, Kelman graduated from the University of Toronto and was ordained by JTS in 1950. He and Tanenbaum were close disciples of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Kelman was known for his “professionalization of the rabbinate,” working to ensure rabbis’ job security, housing, pension and insurance. He declined to take credit for the change, attributing it to the “hundreds of good rabbis out there.”

He also was at the forefront of the social justice movement. In the 1960s, he accompanied Heschel to Selma, Ala., where they marched together with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Kelman was active in many ventures, including serving as a former representative to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations; chairman of the American Section of the World Jewish Congress since 1986; a member of the board of directors of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society; and director of the Joint Placement Commission of the R.A., JTS and the United Synagogue of America.

He is the author of numerous articles, which appeared in a variety of Jewish publications.

NEXT STORY