In 1972, when Rabbi Stanley M. Wagner, came to the BMH, the synagogue had not really recovered from the deaths of Rabbis Samuel Adelman (1966) and Charles Eliezer Hillel Kauvar (1972). The synagogue was failing.
In 1972, no one in Denver had envisioned a Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Denver, although Rabbi Kauvar had taught at DU for decades.
No one had heard of a Holocaust Awareness Institute, a Rocky Mountain Jewish Historical Society, a Maimonides Society or Beck Archives — because they did not exist.
We doubt whether Rabbi Wagner himself had thought of these things in 1972. His focus, his charge, was to rebuild the BMH. And that he did, in relatively short order. He raised the funds to construct a large sanctuary, social hall and classrooms. He brought in new members. The synagogue that many thought dead — having lost hundreds of members to the burgeoning Beth Joseph and the fledgling Rodef Shalom — came back to life with a roar.
The late Joseph Mosko, a lay leader at BMH, commented back then that he was so pleased with the synagogue’s “leadership.” By that he meant a rabbi who not only preached, but raised ideas and raised the funds to see them through to completion.
Read the full IJN obituary, "Rabbi Wagner leaves multifaceted legacy"
Rabbi Wagner founded the Center for Judaic Studies in 1975, and created a synergy between it and his synagogue. Although he was careful to cast the growth of the academic center at DU as universal in scope — pertinent to both the entire university and the entire Jewish community — he tied the Center to the BMH in two ways. First, he persuaded much of his synagogue leadership to support the Center, under the auspices of the Maimonides Society. Second, he held many of the Center’s public events at BMH — lectures by such eminences as Abba Eban, Elie Wiesel and Chaim Potok.
Rabbi Wagner was proud of the fact that he enabled a synagogue and a university to reach beyond their customary spiritual and academic boundaries. He liked to build bridges and engage in cross pollination.
Sometimes this caused him difficulty. One of many Denver rabbis who founded a joint conversion program, which operated in secret, 1977-1983, Rabbi Wagner was subjected to severe criticism by his Orthodox confreres for cutting out halachic requirements. Rabbi Wagner always thought big. What he had hoped would became an international model for conversion was neither adopted in Israel nor duplicated in the Diaspora; though, to be sure, the reasons for its collapse in Denver encompassed the positions of many of its participants. The program tried to square the circle; and Rabbi Wagner, pained over the growing denominational divisions in American Jewry, showed that no person, no matter how well meaning, could fight the forces of history by trying to be both Orthodox and pluralistic.
Rabbi Wagner had a tremendous capacity to delegate; to inspire committees; to get others to do the necessary work, far beyond the capacity of one person, in order to carry out his visions. This, we may say in general. We must be careful not to let generalities hide the ways in which he changed and developed.
Beginning the Center for Judaic Studies strictly as an academic and a university-outreach effort, he founded the RMJHS and Beck Archives as natural extensions of this academic focus. But he saw beyond academia. He co-founded the Mizel Museum, and used it as a bridge-building effort with other faith communities. He became sensitive to the emerging voice of Holocaust survivors. He captured their newfound willingness, after decades of almost complete silence, to speak about the Holocaust. He captured it in the Holocaust Awareness Institute. Now, as most of the survivors have passed on, the burden of remembrance falls to a new generation, needing new ways to keep the vision alive.
Beginning his rebuilding effort at BMH as a bricks-and-mortar and membership effort, Rabbi Wagner responded to the changing circumstances in Orthodox Judaism. Ironically, when the BMH affiliated with the Orthodox Union in 1956, cutting its ties with the Conservative movement, this step was considered a coup for Orthodoxy; but by 1988, the BMH’s halachic standards were out of step with the growing consistency in American Orthodoxy. Rabbi Wagner responded to the suggestion that he institute a mechitzah minyan and NCSY chapter, though he never pushed them, as he did so much else at the synagogue, as member-building enterprises in their own right; and now, as the BMH-BJ is in a holding pattern in this regard, the burden of resolving the issue falls to a new generation.
While recalling Rabbi Wagner’s larger endeavors that changed this community, it is worth noting that he promoted many other endeavors that, for another rabbi, would be major achievements. In Rabbi Wagner’s wide harvest, they were added touches. We have in mind such things as the Irwin Vinnik Fellowship, which allows Colorado students to pursue interfaith and intercultural studies in Israel; or the flourishing BMH-BJ preschool. Not to mention the countless mourners Rabbi Wagner counseled, the many simchas he served, the daily minyanim he rarely missed, the classes he taught at DU and the sermons he delivered — always, prepared.
Rabbi Wagner did not relax in retirement. He derived great pleasure from co-translating Onkelos’ ancient, Aramaic translation of the Torah. He was able to see the completion of this effort shortly before he died. In the sense that much of his career promoted the academic study of Judaism, his retirement proved that he practiced what he preached.
Rabbi Wagner paid a price for his driving force. He aroused strong feelings, one way or the other. He was a hard-driving man, a fabulous fundraiser, by turns admired, feared or loved, generating respect, antagonism or support, even as he came to be envious of other rabbis for their pastoral skills and softer ways. Many miss Rabbi Wagner and were deeply saddened by his passing. He was one-of-a-kind, not likely to be seen again.
No one can be everything to everyone. In the areas that he chose to excel in, Rabbi Wagner, indeed, excelled, beyond the norm, probably beyond any other community rabbi in Denver in the 20th century.
Copyright © 2013 by the Intermountain Jewish News