Tonight Rabbi Wolf gave me and some others a ride. A grey-bearded, glasses-wearing man with a large black hat and suit coat, he ushered us into the car with a twinkle in his eye. "I never say no to Daisy," he declared. (Daisy, whose name has been changed, was the one who had gotten us the ride.) Rabbi Wolf's car has four wheel drive and was thus perfect for the sleeting, icy roads.
I had never had an opportunity to talk with Rabbi Wolf before although I knew him as the man who sent my father out to lein megillah on Purim. My father was usually assigned to lein for women in the hospital who had just given birth as they typically felt less comfortable with young yeshiva bochurim (the other individuals marshaled for the cause). I tended to go along, dressed in costume, to put the women at ease.
During the course of our conversation, it became clear that Rabbi Wolf is a very special man. I wanted to share some of his stories with you.
He began by discussing part of what he does regarding the meis mitzvah situation in Chicago. I have heard elsewhere that funeral homes can cover 6-8 meis mitzvahs per month. These individuals are the elderly who have no remaining family, are estranged from their family or in more tragic cases, may be young people who were caught in the spiral of addiction and whose family members will not or cannot claim them. While the funeral home covers the cost of a coffin and shrouds for the deceased, Rabbi Wolf is the one who organizes a quorum of ten men, called a minyan, and brings them to attend the funeral so that he can say Kaddish.
"Today the weather was terrible," he remarked. "I had a group of ten elderly individuals and the rain was sheeting down, the wind was blowing- I told them to stay in the car. I went out and then I said Kaddish in the car. Never done that before," he smiled.
Rabbi Wolf was originally imported from Toronto, Canada to teach at Cheder Lubavitch in its early days. He taught there for several years and then realized that teaching was not the be-all and end-all of his career. He began to teach part time and then involved himself in other matters- such as creating minyanim to say kaddish for Jews who would otherwise not have that last rite performed.
I pressed him and he began to describe some of the other things that he does. "There's a number in Chicago where every time someone has a concern or complaint about the elderly, it goes to that number," he explained. "Let's say someone is saying there's an infestation in an apartment. Or let's say there's a concern someone is lacking food. It goes to that number. So we can register with the city and become the person where if the person has any known Jewish affiliation, we are the ones to go check it out."
"And what do you find?" I asked.
"All sorts of things," he explained. "Sometimes the original complaint, you go and you realize it's gornisht."
"By which you mean it's worse than described?"
He nods. "This Thursday, I went to an apartment. The city said there was a concern the woman did not have food. So I came with a bag of food and she threw me out, saying that she's a vegetarian and she can't eat the food. So I said, okay, but can I come in? Can I just talk to you? So she showed me inside. There's a blanket and a pillow on the floor. This is where I sleep, she says. She has a little dog; the dog cuddles up with her for warmth."
"Wow," I say. "And now?"
"Now, she has a bed, blankets, a couch, and the china breakers are coming in," he says happily. I'm not sure whether he's joking or serious about the last part.
"So what happened to all her furniture?" my seatmate asks.
"It's a sad story. She was evicted- and she has family, but they don't speak with her, haven't for fifteen years. This is a woman where, Chas V'Shalom, if she dies, she will be a meis mitzvah." He says it matter-of-factly, keeping his eyes on the road.
It's the casual chas v'shalom that gets me. He truly believes it will be a tragedy when this surly woman who threw him and his food out of the apartment originally passes away. He doesn't take her behavior personally- not at all. He cares about her. The love radiates off of him.
"There's a lot of chesed in Chicago," he declares, "no one will deny. But one area where I feel like it's a niche that hasn't been fully filled is caring for the elderly."
"Did you always have the patience to do so?" I ask. "From the time you were a little kid?"
"The elderly were in my life since I was a child," he answers obliquely. He's humble, not interested in bragging.
"You also have to have the right personality to do it," my seatmate interjects. "Rivki who does Tuesdays with Rivki - that group for the elderly- she can do it but even if she gets very good substitutes, people don't want to come. It's something about her."
"You have to listen," I say.
"There was a man," Rabbi Wolf says, "who walked into our Center. Our Center is on Touhy. So we ask him to put on a yarmulke and he says no. Okay, no problem, we're happy you're here. But he comes again. So I sit down with him. I see something is bothering him. I ask him, 'Why won't you put on the yarmulke?' And he looks at me and says, 'Who knows whose head it has touched?' So I realized this is a very neat, very clean man. So I find him a brand-new yarmulke. We put it in a Ziploc bag in a special place where he can always find it. He doesn't wear it on the street- just when he comes in. And then he was happy to put it on his head.'
His point is how essential it is to listen to people. To go beyond their words to their actual needs. To care.
He mentions something about free meals his center provides which come from Chalavi, a local pizza parlor. His organization had a Chanukah party to which 35 people showed up. He's trying to spread the word. I'm not entirely sure as to whether this is a form of soup kitchen or just a community venture to enable others to socialize, but either way it is kind.
"We do transportation," he continues. "Not groceries- there are other organizations that do grocery shopping and we don't want to take every person to the grocery every time they want to go shopping. But certain transportation we do, especially medical appointments. Someone calls up one day and says, can we take them to the wig shop. Now, my secretary who has been working for me for twelve years, God bless her, she asks whether this is a one-time thing or an ongoing thing. She's thinking, maybe this is a convert. The woman says it's a one-time thing. Well, my secretary continues asking questions and she finds out this woman needs a wig because she is starting chemotherapy." He pauses. "We took her to every single one of her chemotherapy appointments. She's in remission now, Baruch Hashem."
He swings the car into a turn. "It would have been so easy to put down the phone and say, sorry, we don't do that. But she listened."
"What happens when the City of Chicago sends you to an apartment with an infestation?" I ask, fascinated.
"There are all sorts of programs," he answers, "discounts on exterminators, CJE."
"But I mean, what happens if the person won't let you in?"
"So I come back again."
"But what if they still won't let you in?"
"So I come back again and I try to think what they might need where if I bring it, the person will let me in."
"He's very persistent," my seatmate says.
We've reached our destination so I clamber out of the car. I love his nonchalance, the ease with which he explains he'll simply keep going back until he's addressed the situation. This man does his work out of love for God's people - not because you pay him. He does it because he cares. He's a man I can admire, the type of man I want my children to grow up to be. He's a man who has left me feeling a little happier, a little more hopeful, because I live in a world in which he lives as well.
If you are interested in learning more about Rabbi Wolf's work, check out the Chicago Mitzvah Campaign.