Renewal rabbi taught at Aquarian Minyan

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

David Wolfe-Blank, a soft-spoken Renewal rabbi with a national following, was killed last week when his car rolled off a Vancouver Island road.

A former leader of Berkeley's Aquarian Minyan, Wolfe-Blank, 47, his wife, Elaine, and 5-year-old son, Uriel, were returning to their Seattle home from a family vacation Friday of last week when the car for unknown reasons, careened off the roadway.

His wife and son escaped serious injury, but were air-lifted with the critically injured Wolfe-Blank to a Seattle hospital. There, the rabbi was kept alive on life-support systems until Shabbat was over. He died Saturday night shortly after being disconnected from the machines.

Hundreds of colleagues, followers and personal relations from all over the country flew to Seattle Monday for the rabbi's funeral. Wolfe-Blank was the spiritual leader of Congregation Eitz Ora in Seattle.

"There were more rabbis in one room than in any city in the country, with the exception maybe of New York," said Alan Cahn of Seattle, a lay leader of Wolfe-Blank's congregation.

In Berkeley, grieving Aquarian Minyan congregants gathered at a private home to remember their beloved "rabbi chaver" (teacher among peers), as he was called.

"He was a good teacher…He became part of our team both in leading services and interpreting liturgy," recalled Reuven Goldfarb, lay leader of Aquarian Minyan.

"His humility and brilliance drew people to him. He did not hide himself but was very open about his own history, thought process and emotional vulnerability," Goldfarb added.

Wolfe-Blank was sent to the lay-led Berkeley congregation in 1981 by his colleague, Renewal leader Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. A Lubavitch-ordained rabbi who later studied Zen Buddhism and body-mind disciplines, Wolfe-Blank brought to the alternative Aquarian Minyan a wealth of Jewish knowledge and broad spiritual learning.

"He was a longtime meditator. He also worked in body awareness methodologies such as Feldenkrais and was an ardent advocate…of Kabbalah," Goldfarb said.

Wolfe-Blank left Berkeley in 1995 to take the pulpit at the Renewal Congregation Eitz Or, which he was serving at the time of his accident.

Cahn said that Eitz Or congregants, who have been mourning and sitting shiva daily, have also been trying to accommodate the many rabbis and colleagues of Wolfe-Blank who flew in for the funeral.

Cahn noted that the entire congregation has rallied to take care of Uriel and Elaine Wolfe-Blank, who is recovering from a fracture in her lower back.

Renewal leaders have described Wolfe-Blank as a kind of Jewish Renaissance man who applied his understanding of human behavior, physiology and spirituality to make Judaism more accessible.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of the Renewal movement's Shalom Center in Pennsylvania, said Wolfe-Blank defined the role of rabbi chaver as a peer leader who teaches lay people to lead themselves spiritually. Many Renewal rabbis have since emulated that model.

Waskow added that Wolfe-Blank also influenced Jews from around the world at national Renewal retreats with his unique methods of davening and Torah study. His light-hearted demeanor and sense of play made his Jewish world all the more inviting.

"He touched people's neshamas [souls]."

While those who knew him describe his leadership as unforgettable, Wolfe-Blank may be best remembered for his writings on the Torah and siddur, which he called Meta-Parashiot and Meta-Siddur. The wildly popular commentaries, perused by rabbis and lay people through a subscription, deconstructed the Torah and the prayerbook in new ways. The writings incorporated gematria (the meaning of Hebrew letters) psychological analysis and modern relevance.

"[Wolfe-Blank] was not your average rabbi," said Susan Saxe, an administrator at the Renewal movement's headquarters in Philadelphia. "To contain in the same mind, Jungian psychology…quantum physics, Buddhism [and Judaism] and to synthesize that so they could make a bridge between the ancient world and the modern world…a person like that doesn't come along so often."

In an excerpt from his eulogy, Schachter-Shalomi said to his departed friend:

"Knowing that more than what you have published is there not yet published, we all will see to it that it will be made of use to the next generations.

"When you have recovered from this sudden transit, we will want you to be our representative in higher planes."

Services have been held in Seattle and a memorial gathering was held in Berkeley. Aquarian Minyan congregants also will dedicate a Ba'al Shem Tov birthday Shabbaton, slated for this weekend, to the memory of their rabbi chaver.

Donations in Wolfe-Blank's memory can be sent to a trust fund established to sustain his wife and son, c/o Congregation Eitz Or, P.O. Box 15480, Seattle, WA 98115.

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.