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Midwest to Far East

Rabbi Frederick L. Wenger

J. Lee Simons

Born in 1940 in Rock Island, Illinois, one might ask, “How did a Jewish boy from the midwest become a rabbi?” Rabbi Frederick L. Wenger says that was relatively simple. “My father was in the wholesale produce business and passed away in 1954, when I was fourteen years old. After high school, I went to the University of Chicago, where I graduated in political science and then went on to the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati and became a Reform rabbi in 1969.”

However, that deceptively simple beginning has taken him across the U.S. and to continents in the Far East and Middle East. “After being ordained a rabbi, I joined the U.S. Army, spending a year at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, and a year in Vietnam as a Jewish chaplain,” he explained. Rabbi Wenger was in Fort Jackson during the height of the Vietnam conflict, the post where many New York draftees were sent.

Here was a midwestern rabbi in the deep south serving as chaplain to a congregation of east coast Jews, Wenger described. “I would get up on a Saturday morning to confront 200 GIs there and say ‘Good morning fellow Jews. How many of you are here from Brooklyn? How many of you are here from the Bronx? How many of you are here from Staten Island? How many of you are from Long Island? How many of you are from Queens? How many from the rest of the country?”

Wenger, who did not fit the stereotype, had only been to the east coast for an internship while he was at the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now Union for Reform Judaism1) as a student and later for basic training at Fort Hamilton. “I guess that every single Jew that lives outside of New York looks on New York as the capital of the American Jewish community. When doing basic training at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, I thought you could walk off the base and find a synagogue and immediately be surrounded by Jewish Brooklyn,” he said. “As it turned out, at the foot of the Verrazano-Narrows bridge in Brooklyn is Bay Ridge, and Bay Ridge is solid Catholic—blocks and blocks and miles and miles with a Catholic church on every corner.”

One of four rabbis serving in Vietnam, Wenger was stationed in Saigon, but he flew out to find his flock in various remote locations. “In the army, LDS chaplains weren’t assigned to locations. They were under a command to go all over the country looking for Mormon troops. I was looking for Jews,” he said. “We had opportunities for a lot of good conversations.” Although they never traveled together, Wenger found he and Latter-day Saint chaplains were often on bases at the same time.

Those experiences in Vietnam left an indelible mark on Wenger, as they did on all who served there. “First of all, it intensified my faith in God, very, very strongly. I put my life, and other people’s lives, in God’s hands. I also saw what a powerful thing strong faith could be,” he reflected. “Many of our GIs were on what they called stand down, which meant that there was very little active fighting going on, while things were being negotiated. The opportunities for temptation, in terms of drugs, unfaithfulness to proper family standards, etc., were all around. Our little Jewish chapel program, as well as all the others, helped keep the young men and women where they should be. Once you’ve been through something like that, nothing in life shakes you very much. It’s like, ‘What God’s going to do with you, He’s going to do with you.’”

Midwest to Middle East

At home in the U.S., Wenger considered his options. “Originally, I thought that I was going to go to Israel. But after being in the service, in a foreign culture, especially the situation in Vietnam, I decided to stay in the states,” he said. “I went to Milwaukee as an assistant rabbi at a large reform synagogue called Congregation EmanuEl B’ne Jeshurun. I was there for three years.” His decision proved to be guided by divine providence. “Obviously, I took the best part of Milwaukee with me! Rochelle is a Milwaukee girl. We married after my second year there, and the next year we went to Israel,” he declared.

For nine months, the Wengers lived in Jerusalem. “We experienced the country, and I studied Hebrew at Ulpan Etzion and Jewish studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion,” he said. In addition to the usual visits to the holy sites: the Western wall, Masada, the Temple Mount, and Jericho, where he could put a context to the Bible, the thing that interested Wenger the most was the people. “What absolutely blew me away were the people—the wide variety of different kinds of people from all over the world who came here to build a Jewish state. I hadn’t known what to expect. If you take a look at my life up to that point, I’d read about Israel; I’d been priming for it,” he exclaimed. “I discovered it was much more urbanized than I remembered it being in books. I pictured an idyllic situation with people living slow-paced lives in the countryside or in Jerusalem, the Holy City, or in Tel Aviv with its old wide streets like they used to be in the 1950s and ‘60s. Instead, there were skyscrapers and traffic—hustle and bustle. The Israeli people were anxious to welcome us as a young couple. We had a wonderful, wonderful time.”

Living in the Holy Land also had an impact on Wenger’s religious perspective. “My experiences in Israel have intensified my faith in not only Judaism but also my faith in the unfinished business that God has for the Jewish people: that somehow this particular group of people has a divine mission. That broke down the barriers in my own mind between religious and non-religious Jews. Israelis distinguish between religious Jews and non-religious Jews, by which they mean Orthodox Jews and Non-Orthodox Jews.

“This is a product of an improper understanding of what Jewish secularism means. Jewish secularism is not, in my opinion, the same as general secular culture. It is permeated with Jewish values and Jewish traditions. For example, someone might say, ‘I’m not religious, but we stay home and have a family dinner every Friday night.’ Or say, ‘On New Year’s day and the Day of Atonement, we’ll be at synagogue.’ Or perhaps, ‘Of course, we believe in the moral law,’” he explained. “I think there is a parallel in that way between Jews and Latter-day Saints, as there is a distinct ‘Mormon Culture’—a Mormon sense of community that transcends religiosity. A person may not be considered ‘active’ in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, nevertheless, he or she can be permeated with the values of the culture.” Wenger added that this has been apparent in the understanding of Jewish life that his BYU students have as compared to his non-LDS students at Westminster College.

Israelis epitomize this sense of identity and community. “Israel has that in spades. For example, the Israeli government is always in danger of splitting up and dividing and self-destructing, and yet it never does. Because underneath the inter-party squabbles, there is a common sense of national unity that empowers them to fight like cats in a sack with each other,” Wenger noted. “And there is a common vision defined in part by Judaism and in part by Zionism.” Wenger has taught on both those subjects at universities in Israel and the U.S.

Synagogues and University Teaching

At the conclusion of his studies in Israel, the Wenger’s returned to the U.S. “My home synagogue was conservative, and my training and my convictions are reform. While I was in Israel, I received a phone call, ‘Fred, you might have something to bring to these folks in terms of your own background.’ Two synagogues were merging into one in Huntington, West Virginia. We tried it out for a period that led to seven years,” he said. “Our children were born there. We have a city mouse and a country mouse. Miriam lives in New York, where she is an editorial assistant with a publishing house. Haim is a medivac pilot in Alaska.”

In West Virginia, Wenger received his first opportunity to teach at Marshall University. “That was the first exposure I had to college teaching. And I found that I enjoyed it,” he affirmed. “I taught introduction to Judaism, Old Testament, and the Bible as literature. I tried to teach the teachings of Jesus, but it was not my greatest success.” He also taught Hebrew adult education classes.

From West Virginia, they spent a year and a half at a synagogue in Kansas City that folded into another congregation, and they ended up in Chicago, close to his roots in Rock Island. “Chicago was a very wonderful group of folks, but I was not completely satisfied being one of forty congregations on the north shore,” remarked Wenger. “Another rabbi in Chicago is like being the bishop of a ward in Provo, as opposed to being the bishop of a ward in Brooklyn.”

Home in Salt Lake City

In time, Wenger received another phone call, saying, “Fred, you know how you were the rabbi of a Reform congregation merging with a conservative congregation in West Virginia, well there’s one in Utah that’s looking for a rabbi.” When he was an undergraduate in 1962, Wenger had traveled from Stanford to Chicago. “I took the Greyhound and went through Salt Lake City, where I went to the Tabernacle and heard the choir. What a beautiful place. When the call came in 1987, I wondered, ‘What would it be like to live there?’” He settled in as rabbi to Congregation Kol Ami.

Salt Lake City’s cultural climate proved to be a good match for Wenger, who grew up in a household filled with opera. “The real truth of this one is that when my dad and my mother were courting, they went to Chicago to see Madame Butterfly. And we listened to opera recordings on Saturday afternoons. ‘I’d be so sad if he not come’ was my mother’s paraphrase of CioCio-San,” he recalled. “It’s interesting, too, because that love of opera came full circle last summer when the Utah Festival Opera in Logan did Verdi’s Nabucco—his version of the Jews in Babylon. They asked if I would talk about the Babylonian exile. Opera and music and old phonographs and LPs have been a hobby of mine for a long, long time.”

Living along the Wastach Front eventually brought Wenger to teach at BYU due to the initiative of Donald Holsinger, a former Kennedy Center director. “What has not surprised me at BYU, number one, is the seriousness of the student body. Number two, there is an overall literacy regarding the fields that I am interested in, whether it be Torah, Zionism, or the Jewish faith,” he responded. “Obviously, BYU is a place that takes faith seriously, and the students, most of them, I have had, work very, very hard. There’s no question of work not being turned in on time or things not being done in a careful, motivated way.”

He also had many opportunities for community service in Utah, having served on the Martin Luther King Human Rights Commission, the Religious Freedoms Committee of the Utah State Legislature, and many other civic organizations. And he has served on the boards of major Jewish organizations as well.

Retirement and Opportunities for Service

When Rochelle developed breast cancer, the chemotherapy led to congestive heart failure—all of which led them to reevaluate their priorities. “We looked at each other and said, ‘Listen, is it really our aim in life, no matter how many years we have with each other or not, to have me spending five nights of the week in meetings?’ Life as a rabbi is like being called as a bishop—only it’s for life!” he exclaimed. “I decided to see if I could do something different. I retired, and God was good to us. She got better. And so as soon as she was better, we said, ‘You know what? We can do this.’ And we took off for Israel.”

That was fall 2003. What they found in Israel was an opportunity to teach at Hadassah Neurim,2 a youth village near Netanya, on the Mediterranean Sea. “If you look at a map of Israel and find Tel Aviv, go north along the Mediterranean Sea and you’ll find Netanya. Then north of Netanya is Hadera. In-between Netanya and Hadera, you’ll find our school.” They taught English and Judaism to fourteen- to eighteen-year-old students. “Every single Israeli high school kid has to learn English. They can’t get out of high school without it. And, naturally, they hate it. Like all kids who take required languages in school! English is not the most popular thing. Rochelle and I volunteered as adjuncts in the English Department. These are kids who are disadvantaged in some way, because they’re orphaned, because they’re poor. They must show a social worker, or a social work department, that they would be better off in a residential setting away from their home,” Wenger described.

“The best students are kids who are culturally isolated, like Ethiopian Jewish kids. A third of the school is Ethiopian. Most of them have been in Israel under five years. They learn Hebrew, because that’s the native language of the country, and they’re learning how to function in this fast-paced, Israeli society after coming from Ethiopia, which is a very rural, primitive, backward place. And, in addition, to get out of high school, they have to learn English,” he quipped. “The kids are fast. Those young people are magnificent; they’re wonderful. One of the reasons why they’re at Hadassah-Neurim is because their families have decided that they want the kids to be in a more Israeli society than they would be in their home. One third of the kids are from the former Soviet Union, some of whom are there because they want to train to be Olympic athletes—one of the programs offered by Russian coaches in track and field.

While in Israel, the Wengers began receiving e-mail from Anchorage. “When Haim went to Alaska, naturally, he went to a synagogue. Their rabbi had just left, and one of the congregation asked, ‘What is your father doing?’ ‘Well, he’s retired from Kol Ami in Salt Lake City, Utah, and he’s teaching.’ ‘What’s he doing that for? We have no rabbi here; we need him,’” said Wenger. Before long, the congregation contacted him directly. “We heard from your son that you might be available to help us out for the High Holy Days, for our bar/batmitzvahs, do some counseling, and teach some converts.”

Last spring, Wenger began the long commute between Salt Lake City and Anchorage for Passover. He then let the Kennedy Center know that he would not return to teach until a full-time rabbi could be found. “It’s difficult to encourage rabbis who are trained as we are trained to want to live in Alaska—far away from colleagues. We don’t have the kind of hierarchical system by which the major Jewish organizations appoint and assign and send someone out to Alaska. The person has to agree,” said Wenger. “A rabbi must be prepared to live in one of the most beautiful places on earth but in very, very isolated circumstances. They had one rabbi for sixteen years. He was wonderfully successful there. The next one was not so well fitted. Now they’re taking their time to find the next one.” Wenger is also teaching adult education Hebrew and the history of Israel during his Alaska stays.

In retirement, Rabbi Fred and Rochelle Wenger are far from the rocking chairs on the porch motif. In addition to his commute to Anchorage, they plan to return this winter for three months to teach at Hadassah Neurim. He summed it up this way, saying, “At age sixty-four, I’m finding myself with a life that’s moving in all different kinds of exciting directions.” 

1. The Union of American Hebrew Congregations was founded in Cincinnati in 1873 by Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise. Representing an estimated 1.5 million Jews, at the 2003 biennial convention the general assembly approved the name change. The union has grown from an initial membership of thirty-four congregations in twenty-eight cities to more than 900 congregations in the United States, Canada, the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.
2. Jointly owned by Hadassah Zionist Women’s Organization and the Jewish Agency and run by a nonprofit association, Haddasah Neurim is one of five Youth Aliyah Villages originally established to care for children rescued from Nazi Germany or orphans whose parents were killed in the Holocaust. The focus is now on at-risk children. Hadassah Neurim serves 260 boarding students and 240 day students and is one of the largest youth villages in Israel.