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Rabbi Wagner leaves multifaceted legacy

Rabbi Dr. Stanley WagnerRABBI Dr. Stanley Wagner, spiritual leader of BMH-BJ from 1972-1997, recipient of six post-graduate degrees, founder of DU’s Center for Judaic Studies and the Mizel Museum of Judaica, passed away erev Purim, Feb. 23, 2013, in Jerusalem.

The funeral was held Feb. 25 at Har Menuchot Cemetery in Jerusalem. Stepson Rabbi Chanina Rabinowitz, son-in-law Avi Moskowitz and Prof. Raphael Jospe, who taught with Rabbi Wagner at DU, eulogized the rabbi.

The Denver Synagogue: BMH-BJ will hold a memorial service for Rabbi Wagner on Monday, March 11, 6 p.m., in the sanctuary. The community is encouraged to attend.

“He was a man of action, professionally and in his family life,” daughter Chaya Meyer told the Intermountain Jewish News Monday. “He worked extremely hard to impart lessons and values that taught us how to live.”

Her father “loved people in general and his family in particular,” Mrs. Meyer said. “His greatest desire was for us to be close and committed to one another.

“The fact that his departure has left his grandchildren and great-grandchildren in such pain — you should have heard the wailing in our home when we learned that he died — speaks volumes for him.”

Mrs. Meyer said that despite the geographical distance, Rabbi Wagner spoke to the family every day over the phone or in emails. “We would ask for advice, and he would say, ‘I am here for you.’ He put everything else aside. We looked up to him so much.

“We will miss his loving guidance the most. That will be the hardest part, because we trusted him implicitly, all the time.”

Read the IJN eulogy, “Rabbi Dr. Stanley M. Wagner, 1932-2013

Leland Huttner, president of BMH-BJ at the start of Wagner’s tenure, described the rabbi as a consummate fundraiser who reinvigorated programming, attendance and enthusiasm at the traditional synagogue.

“He was very involved with the operations of BMH-BJ, day after day, hour after hour,” Huttner said. “And he was tremendously influential in terms of getting the congregants involved.”

Larry Gelfond, president of BMH when it merged with Beth Joseph in 1994, says he was “lucky to know Rabbi Wagner as my spiritual leader and friend for all the years he lived in Denver.

“He was an exceptional person who brought out the best in everything he did and all he encountered.”

In 1972, about 50 people regularly attended Shabbat services. Upon his retirement 25 years later, attendance had soared to 400.

“No rabbi worth his salt ever lives a life in which all of his goals are achieved,” Wagner told the IJN when he retired in 1997. “It’s always a matter of the extent to which you reach your goals.

“I would love to have had a thousand people worshipping on Shabbos; a thousand people coming to study with me; a thousand people who have become observant Jews as a result of my rabbinate.

“But if I have several hundred coming to the synagogue, several hundred studying with me, if I have scores of people who have become closer to Judaism as a result of my rabbinate, then I have to say it was a ‘moderate’ victory.”

STANLEY Wagner was born in 1932 in Brooklyn and educated and ordained at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. He wrote his doctoral thesis on “Religious Non-Conformity in Ancient Jewish Life.”

Following his ordination, he held pulpit and teaching positions in Lexington, Ky. (1957-1961) and Baldwin, NY (1961-1970).

From 1970-1972, the rabbi was executive vice president of the Religious Zionists of America (Mizrachi), for which he spearheaded fundraising.

When Wagner was first approached about the senior rabbi position at BMH-BJ in the late 1960s, he declined — not due to the city’s isolated reputation but because of its beloved rabbi emeritus, Charles E.H. Kauvar.

It was nothing personal, Wagner told the IJN. “I said I would never come to a congregation where there was a rabbi emeritus. And I never did.”

In 1972, BMH (as it was called before merging with Beth Joseph in 1994) wasn’t the most exciting pulpit in the country.

Due to the untimely death of Rabbi Samuel Adelman and the exodus from Capitol Hill, long a Jewish neighborhood, the congregation had fallen on lethargic times.

Wagner, who described himself as “aggressive even as a kid,” welcomed the challenge and accepted the position.

He relied on his inner determination and three principles to awaken the synagogue: cultivation, education and solicitation.

Wagner raised the funds to complete the building at 560 S. Monaco Pkwy., and BMH-BJ flourished.

The rabbi’s vision and drive also changed Denver’s Jewish community at large.

With his academic background, Rabbi Wagner secured a teaching position at DU, following in the footsteps of Rabbi Kauvar.

In 1975, Rabbi Wagner founded the Center for Judaic Studies at DU. Then, one by one, he founded the Rocky Mountain Jewish Historical Society, Beck Archives and Holocaust Awareness Institute, all as part of the center.

In 1982, following a trip to the Jewish Museum in London, Wagner co-founded the Mizel Museum of Judaica along with Larry Mizel. Initially a one-room gallery at BMH, it proved too cramped to accommodate larger dreams.

The Mizel Museum has evolved into a vibrant teaching museum at 400 S. Kearney that invites the entire city to sample Jewish culture.

Wagner directed the Mizel Museum until 2000.

From 1980-1998, he served as a Jewish chaplain in the Colorado State Senate.

Rabbi Wagner and his first wife Simmy were together for 34 years, until they divorced. Wagner married Renee Rabinowitz in November, 1990.

In 2001, he returned to BMH-BJ as interim rabbi for six months during a rabbinical search.

The rabbi made aliyah with Renee about seven years ago.

It was a very creative period for Wagner, who completed, with Israel Drazin, an English translation from the Aramaic of Onkelos — the first and most well-known and authoritative translation of the Pentateuch.

He wrote A Piece of My Mind and edited Great Confrontations in Jewish History, among others.

ALTHOUGH he loved his life in Israel, Rabbi Wagner visited the US and Denver as often as his health allowed to see his family and congregation.

Emails flew back and forth between the rabbi and countless friends who kept him in their thoughts and prayers.

Wagner, who preferred to be called “Simcha” after making aliyah, sometimes surprised and even angered his Orthodox and non-Orthodox colleagues.

Orthodox authorities roundly rejected his defense of Denver’s controversial joint conversion program, which existed in secret for six years until it folded in the spring of 1983. It was publicized for the first time in December, 1983.

“You know, every time I come up with a new idea, people say, ‘It’s one of Wagner’s power grabs,’” he told the IJN.

“All I really want to do is serve the community, and the people who know me best realize this is my goal.

“The perception in the minds of some is that I’m just building empires, but the fact is I want to serve the community.”

He worried that assimilation would be the death knell of the Jewish people unless a collective battle cry rose from the religious community against the mounting threat.

Asked about his legacy, Wagner briefly pondered the question.

“ ‘He tried,’” he answered. “If there are any two words that have to go on my epitaph, they are, ‘He tried.’”

Rabbi Wagner is survived by his wife Renee Wagner; daughters Frady (Avi) Moskowitz of New York and Chaya (Rabbi Yaakov) Meyer of Denver; stepchildren Rabbi Chanina (Chana) Rabinowitz and Shana Rabinowitz; 13 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.

Contributions may be made to The Denver Synagogue: BMH-BJ, or Aish Denver.

Copyright © 2013 by the Intermountain Jewish News

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