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Rabbi Wohlgemuth was born in 1915. He earned semicha in 1937 at the renowned Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin. According to one historian, “Every subject in the encyclopedia was discussed in its relationship to traditional Judaism.” After his ordination, Rabbi Wohlgemuth returned to his home district of Bavaria as one of the youngest pulpit rabbis in Germany, presiding at the shul in the historic city of Kitzingen.
On Nov. 9, 1938, the synagogue was one of thousands destroyed or damaged in the pogrom that became known as Kristallnacht. Rabbi Wohlgemuth was apprehended and confined to the Dachau labor camp; he was released after a few months and fled to a relative in New York. In November 1940 Rabbi Wohlgemuth became the first spiritual leader of Temple Shaare Tefilah in Norwood, MA.
Rabbi Wohlgemuth and his wife Berta met in 1943. After their marriage, they began teaching at a Jewish day school in Chelsea before joining the faculty of the fledgling Maimonides School in 1945. He along with Rabbi M.J. Cohn, principal emeritus, and Rabbi Isaac Simon--all recent immigrants from Europe--became the cornerstones of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s bold venture into Jewish day school education.
During his Maimonides career, Rabbi Wohlgemuth taught every grade. After the school moved to its permanent campus in Brookline in 1962, he initiated a course on the interpretation of prayer for every student in Grades 8-12. His Be’ur Tefillah classes are recalled today with admiration and affection by hundreds of former students. In the mid-1990s his lessons were compiled into a book, A Guide to Jewish Prayer. He also taught for many years in Hebrew College’s Prozdor program.
Beyond the classroom, Rabbi and Mrs. Wohlgemuth were leaders in supporting and strengthening the school. The rabbi delivered hundreds of appeals on behalf of Maimonides. Mrs. Wohlgemuth, a kindergarten teacher at the school for more than 30 years, was a leader of the Women’s Auxiliary for decades, and each year called hundreds of graduates individually to inquire about their welfare and solicit their support. Rabbi and Mrs. Wohlgemuth were among the first recipients of the Pillar of Maimonides Award in 1979, and they were honorees of the 1990 Scholarship Campaign.
In remarks to more than 550 people at the Scholarship Banquet on Dec. 16, 1990, Rabbi Wohlgemuth said that in honor of the children who perished in the Holocaust, “I vowed I would never cause a Jewish child any anguish or sorrow. 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.”
Rabbi Isaiah Wohlgemuth was a legendary teacher who pioneered the teaching of Jewish prayer with his outstanding Beurei HaTefillah course at Maimonides School in Boston, Massachusetts. In this updated and expanded edition, the reader can now share in the knowledge that Rabbi Wohlgemuth lovingly transmitted to his students.
RABBI ISAIAH WOHLGEMUTH (1915 – 2008) was part of a “greatest generation” of post-World War II Jewish leadership who helped to rejuvenate an American Jewish community badly in need of educational direction. During his tenure at the Maimonides School in Boston, Massachusetts, Rabbi Wohlgemuth attracted generations of young people to the warmth of Torah. He was a gentle man and a beautiful teacher with a brilliant mind and a clear philosophy.
Rabbi Wohlgemuth was ordained at the Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin. In 1935, he returned home to Kitzingen, in the district of Bavaria, where he became the youngest pulpit rabbi in Germany at the time. In 1938, his synagogue was among the thousands devastated on Kristallnacht. Rabbi Wohlgemuth was confined to Dachau, and after his release in 1939, he was able to escape to the United States. Shortly thereafter, he came to Boston where he embraced the ideals of Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik in the teaching of Torah and Yiddishkeit. It was also here that he met his wife Bertha Oberndoerfer. They were married in 1943. Rabbi Wohlgemuth developed a close relationship with Rav Soloveitchik, founder of the Maimonides School, who took a particular interest in Rabbi Wohlgemuth’s tefillah course and insisted that no student graduate without it.
Rabbi Isaiah Wohlgemuth was, above all, a master teacher whom few could match and who was able to instill a love of learning in all his students. He cared and empathized with each of his students and they reciprocated with their admiration and respect.
Rabbi Wohlgemuth’s classroom and this book are his legacy to us.
Asher Reichert received semicha from Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. He and his wife, Rashie, live in Israel with most of their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Eliyahu Krakowski is Associate Editor of OU Press.
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