Farewell to Mr Wolf – a King David legend
Johannesburg Jewry and former King Davidians around the world this week mourned the sudden passing of legendary educator and much-loved former Jewish school headmaster, Elliot Wolf.
There has been a groundswell of grief from generations of people whose lives he had a profound impact on. Hundreds of people turned to social media to express their sadness and to recount anecdotes in which Wolf, who was also director of the King David Schools Foundation, featured.
Wolf was laid to rest in the section of Westpark Cemetery reserved for people who have displayed exceptional commitment to the community. His contribution to Jewish education for 50 years in South Africa was extraordinary.
His identical twin brother, Jeffrey Wolf, is distraught, said his family. “My father is battling,” said Graham Wolf. “It’s as though he has lost a limb. He feels like he has lost his other half.”
“For the community, this is a huge loss, but for our family, uncle Ell was a giant as well,” he said.
The Wolf twins are synonymous with Jewish education in South Africa and the King David School system. Born and bred in Yeoville, Johannesburg, the brothers devoted their careers to teaching and made it their life’s ambition to enhance Jewish education.
This week, Elliot was looking forward to visiting the Westcliff Hotel with his long-time close friend Sheryl Benjamin to admire the jacarandas which are in full bloom across the city. Elliot, an avid horticulturalist and gardener, delighted in the purple display each season. The two taught together for more than 40 years.
“Elliot had a special, empathetic way of dealing with children’s problems. He’d share their heartache, joy, and pain, and he was fair,” she said. In later years, when they attended school reunions together, he was always the favourite, while she was “second best”.
“Past pupils absolutely adored him. They marvelled at how he remembered almost every one of them down to the minute details of their school career and family lives.”
News of his passing sent shock waves through the community. Up until last week, he had been well and enjoyed spending a few days in the Kruger National Park with members of his family. It was an extended 80th birthday celebratory holiday for Barbara Wolf, Jeffrey’s wife, with whom Elliot was very close. They arrived last Thursday, and enjoyed a few days in the bush, one of Elliot’s favourite places. A few days into their holiday, he took ill and was rushed to hospital in Nelspruit, where he later passed away. Pictures of them in the bush show a happy, smiling Elliot.
To those who knew and loved him, Elliot was the quintessential gentleman and mensch. He had a keen understanding of the teenage mind, saw through their pain and innumerable behavioural quirks, and revelled in their achievements in the arts, sciences, sports, and academics.
“Every child mattered,” said Benjamin, “he took notice of all his students and cared about their well-being.”
As head of the King David Schools Foundation, Elliot travelled the world, meeting up with alumni whose lives he had an impact on.
Raelene Tradonsky, the executive director of the foundation, described Elliot as “a dear colleague, mentor, and a loyal and trusted friend”.
“He had a real passion for Jewish education and particularly the underdog. He had come from very humble beginnings and believed that everyone should be afforded the opportunity of a Jewish education of excellence, irrespective of their parents’ financial position,” she said.
He was an excellent fundraiser who was “uncomfortable” asking for money. “I told him it was our job to ask, and they could only say no,” she said.
“On one of our first trips to Australia, a wonderful alumnus and donor remarked that we made a great ‘horse and pony show’ – I was the ‘iron-fist’ and he, the ultimate gentleman, was ‘the velvet glove’.”
She said alumni were stunned at Elliot’s memory as he took delight in reminding them of stories from their school days which they had long since forgotten.
“He remembered because he took a genuine interest in people, and he cared. He really cared.
“Elliot would revel in the success of his former pupils, and delighted in sharing his pleasure with them, reminding them how their interests and passions were sparked at school,” she said.
“We shared a passion for travel and boy, did we have fun doing it! We were wined and dined by some of the wealthiest alumni to have come out of King David, and he relished in being treated like royalty by many a successful Davidian. They embraced Elliot as someone who had played a pivotal role in their success,” she said.
An alumnus, Discovery Group Chief Executive Adrian Gore, said this week that much would be said of Elliot’s legacy and incredible achievements and he was determined to add to that narrative over time.
“But on the day of his passing, my overriding emotion is one of sadness, and particularly of loss for the community. This brings with it a realisation that is important to me: Elliot Wolf was and always will be “Mr Wolf” to me. You see, it wasn’t because he was my headmaster; bear in mind that we worked as colleagues for more than a decade in building the King David Schools Foundation. Instead, it’s because he possessed this rare quality of integrity, conviction, and timeless style. And this, together with his wisdom and sheer intellect, created an ability to shift generations of people. His impact is humbling, and his example is a light for the entire community.”
Alumni this week set up a Facebook page called “In Loving Memory of Elliot Wolf” which has more than 1 000 members.
Hundreds of tributes have continued to flow in, testament to his profound influence over so many people’s lives, young and old.
“School was more than academics to him” said former head girl Karin Kopenhager-Mervis. “He refused to allow me to take history as a seventh subject in matric. He said I had enough on my plate and should rather focus on enjoying my final year of school. I could always read up on historical events that interested me in years to come. I took his advice [who didn’t?], and he was so right.”
Her sister, Dena Bloch, remembered being visited by him during a long stay in hospital when she was in Grade 10.
“He brought me a book, The Color Purple. He asked me to read it and said he would like to discuss it with me when I was done. I was never much of a reader, but read the book because, hey, Mr Wolf said so! He visited me a week later, and sat chatting to me about the book, recommending others. Not only did he instil in me the love of reading, but I was in awe of his genuine care for me.”
“He really believed in me when I certainly didn’t believe in myself!” said Dani Janks.
Journalist Shira Druion wrote, “I recall a particular discussion we had for the purpose of a newspaper article I was writing about him. I asked him what he attributed his success to as an educator. His reply made an indelible impact. ‘I grew up in a house in Yeoville. My mother was an extremely outgoing person, and so my brother and I stayed on the quieter side to keep up. This taught me there was beauty in silence and from that, I learned to listen. So when I interacted with my students, I listened more than I spoke.’ I was so moved, I promised myself I would take that forward with me into my life as an educator.”
Elliot’s November letter to the foundation, which is still to be published at the end of this month, was prophetically titled “Reason for Introspection”.
In it, he wrote how a recent fall and injury to his shoulder had given him the opportunity to reflect on his life and times.
“At this stage of my career, I feel I must have a further challenge – to compile with much assistance a history of KDHS Linksfield. This is certainly not an easy task, as how does one restrict oneself when there is such a diverse and rich record of achievement. However, I shall try to accomplish this with an advance apology for any oversights. Chazak ve’ematz [be strong and have courage] will be my watchword in compiling this record. I hope that that it will reveal as many of the threads as possible that make up the rich tapestry of King David High School Linksfield.”