From Sweden to the South

From Sweden to the South

An outspoken rabbi trods an unconventional path

Robert Wolkoff has been a rabbi in some atypical places — from Gothenburg, Sweden, to Savannah, Ga. — but the way he does his job is always the same: He speaks out on moral issues without regard for offending his congregants. And he always makes celebrating a priority. 

Since 2007, he has been the rabbi at B’nai Tikvah, a Conservative synagogue in North Brunswick, where his sermons have addressed topics such as President Donald Trump’s travel bans, the controversies surrounding illegal immigration, and lying by public officials.

“There is a nexus between politics and morality,” he said. “You can’t take a vacation from morality because there’s some political involvement. My job is not to tell people to vote Republican or Democrat. My job is to call out immorality when I see it. Nobody gets a pass. This is not the politics of Rabbi Wolkoff. This is the Bible.”    

He embraces diversity of opinion, counting himself among the readership of the liberal magazine The New Republic, as well as the conservative Weekly Standard. He frequents the websites of the Arab news organization Al Jazeera and the Zionist Arutz Sheva. He also writes a blog for The Times of Israel. 

Wolkoff, ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary, was drawn to the position in Gothenburg, Sweden, because, though Swedes themselves are often perceived as reserved, the synagogue was looking for an outspoken leader. “The congregation was distinctly aware of its minority status, its need to fight anti-Semitism and defend Israel, and the need to inform the greater Swedish public about Judaism,” he said. 

The synagogue, the Jewish Congregation of Gothenburg, was comprised of “the big synagogue,” which was Conservative, and “the minyan,” which was Orthodox — he was the rabbi for both. He moved to Sweden in 1983 at the age of 32, and after four months of intensive language study, began delivering his sermons in Swedish to the synagogue’s 1,000 families. 

Living for a decade in a country with just 18,000 Jews out of a population of nine million people gave Wolkoff a heightened awareness of “the importance of solidarity,” he said. 

The position also brought him together with his wife, Ruth-Ann, who frequently traveled to Sweden on business from her home in Wisconsin, where she worked in textile research and development. When she found herself overseas for Rosh HaShanah, she began chatting with a couple sitting next to her at the Orthodox service at Wolkoff’s synagogue. Later the couple introduced her to Wolkoff, and she and the rabbi married after a two-year, long-distance romance. 

In Savannah — where the closest Conservative synagogue to his was two hours away in Charleston, S.C. — his congregants were “deliciously haimish,” he said. But the mix of Jewish and Southern culture offered some surprises: Every year, a group of Jews who belonged to a nearby Orthodox synagogue held an oyster roast. 

Wolkoff’s congregation, Agudath Achim, “had a good instinct for partying,” be it at a bar mitzvah or a wedding. Celebration, he said, is an important element of Judaism. “There are a lot of things to be serious about — and you should be — but life is really about, how do you celebrate? And Judaism is not supposed to be separate from your life.”

While his far-flung congregations have given him a broad view of the experience of being Jewish, he also regularly reaches out to those of other religions. “We Jews have an awful lot to learn from Christians and Muslims,” said the one-time comparative religion major at Wesleyan University. He has welcomed Muslims to attend services at his congregation and has participated in several Iftar celebrations, which mark the end of the fast day during Ramadan. When Trump’s statements about a travel ban from Muslim countries spurred talk of a registry for Muslims, Wolkoff told his congregants during a sermon that if such a registry were ever introduced, he would be first in line to
sign up.    

Wolkoff has received some pushback from congregants when he speaks out about hot topics, but he is undeterred. He tells them, “This is what needs to be said, and I’m the guy to say it.”

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