Bill Rudolph made being Congregation Beth El’s rabbi look easy

Rabbi William Rudolph in 2017.
Photo by Justin Katz

Rabbi William Rudolph, who spent the first part of his career with the Hillel organization and the second part as a pulpit rabbi, including two decades at Congregation Beth El in Bethesda, died on Monday. He was 79 and had pancreatic cancer.

A fixture at the Conservative synagogue on Old Georgetown Road for decades, Rudolph was known as much for his quick wit as for his love of Judaism and Israel.

“His passions were Israel and big-tent community engagement and Jewish learning,” said Rabbi Greg Harris, who knew Rudolph for 21 years, beginning when Harris became assistant rabbi at Congregation Beth El. When Rudolph retired in 2015, Harris succeeded him as senior rabbi.

Rudolph possessed a dry sense of humor, making funny comments so quickly and gently that they almost slipped by.

“He’s a funny guy. He could deliver a one liner from the bimah, during kiddush, during difficult times and during joyful times,” said Jill Rider, synagogue president. “His delivery was wry and dry.”

Ryder has known Rudolph all her life. He officiated over her baby naming when he was Hillel rabbi at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

“Bill was just a great guy. He was really the center of what made Beth El, Beth El — welcoming and inclusive,” she said.

Rudolph loved riding his bicycle, going to the beach and visiting his grandchildren. He was learned and closely followed both American and Israeli politics. He loved watching the UConn Huskies women’s basketball team, reading detective mysteries and listening to Jewish music.

“He took moral stances about politics,” Harris said. “It wasn’t political. It was about ethics and morals. He wasn’t afraid to call someone out when they weren’t being moral, whether it was someone in the news or in the Bible.”

Harris will most remember Rudolph’s humility. “He was humble about his accomplishments. He wanted to put other people first.” Harris added, “For me personally, he was a tremendous mentor and friend.”

Rabbi Michael Balinsky was Rudolph’s assistant rabbi at the University of Michigan in the late 1970s. “The main professional lesson I learned from Bill was to know when to be the center of attention and when to stand back.”

When Rudolph retired in 2015, at the age of 70, more than 600 congregants gathered to honor him and rename the synagogue’s central hallway after him.

During a video created for his retirement celebration, Rudolph said, “I think it is really fun to be Jewish, and I try to convey that. Not fun in the sense it’s all partying and having a good time, but in the sense that it makes my life so much richer than it would be otherwise.”

Rider recalled, “There was such a joy surrounding him. Even after retirement, “He didn’t really go anywhere. He and [his wife] Gail remained a part of the congregation.”

She added, “Everyone felt close to Bill. He cared, and he paid attention, and he would circle back with people. He was quiet in many ways, but his presence was just very big.”

“It’s a really big loss,” she said.

First came Hillel

A native of Philadelphia, William David Rudolph graduated from Temple University with a degree in psychology. He spent the summer on a kibbutz in Israel and then attended Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, the Reform movement’s seminary.

He enrolled in the University of Michigan, where he finished coursework but not his dissertation in biblical studies, and served as a rabbi to students through Hillel, first at Michigan State University and then at the University of Michigan.

Balinsky, now the retired executive vice president of the Chicago Board of Rabbis, was a newly ordained Orthodox rabbi. He remembers his Reform boss at Hillel with pleasure. Rudolph’s humor and good-natured ribbing are vivid more than 40 years later.

“Bill had just come into the Hillel building from jogging and I asked him how far he had gone,” said Balinsky, whose daughter is Maharat Ruth Balinsky Friedman of Ohev Sholom — the National Synagogue in the District.

“He said, ‘six miles’ and I made a sound like I wasn’t very impressed.

“He said, ‘Balinsky, when you run six miles, I’ll put on tefillin for 10 years.’”

Balinsky said he lost the weight and when he could run six miles, he let his boss know.

Did Rudolph put on tefillin after that?

“Well, he did become a Conservative rabbi,” Balinsky said.

The Washington years

Rudolph led Hillel in Ann Arbor for four years. His life in Washington began when he became national director of personnel at Hillel’s headquarters in Washington. Altogether, Rudolph worked at Hillel for 23 years.

Congregation Beth El’s newsletter Scroll takes up the story in its June 2015 issue:

“In 1983, recently divorced, needing something else to do and a little extra cash, he became assistant rabbi of Congregation Beth El. He had heard about the position from Rabbi Sam Fishman, a Beth El congregant who also worked at Hillel. He started after Yom Kippur and worked about 10 hours a week.”

He became a full-time rabbi in 1996 and was named senior rabbi in 2001. By the time of his Beth El period, he had left the Reform movement and become a Conservative Jew. He had come to believe that Conservative Judaism “makes the most sense” — because it preserves tradition while adapting to change as necessary, he told WJW in 2017.

At Beth El, he established the early morning Shabbat Minyan, Senior Caucus, Family Camp and Megillah Madness.

He was an enthusiast of the Latke-Hamantash Debate that he brought to Beth El. The debate originated at the University of Chicago in 1946, and its facetious pedantry over which holiday food is superior matched his sense of humor.

He wrote a weekly online column called It’s Wednesday. When he retired, he changed it to It’s Still Wednesday. He continued to write until about six weeks before he died.

In 2015, he officiated at the first Jewish wedding in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, in 19 years. He had been asked by a congregant if he would help her African cousin’s fiancée convert to Judaism. That began a series of lessons and a friendship through Skype to a woman whose family members were farmers in Zimbabwe.

He was active with the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and served numerous terms on its board, planning and allocations committee, rabbinic cabinet and missions committee. He was co-chair of the Community Division and the Affinity Division of the annual campaign.

He helped found Washington’s Ramah Day Camp and served as founding board president of the Jewish Millennial Engagement Project.

After his retirement, he served as part-time rabbi at Fauquier Jewish Congregation in Virginia.

He is survived by his wife, Gail Fribush; children, Dan, Sara and Marc; and three grandchildren.

In 2017, WJW reported on an impromptu contest between the retired Rudolph and his successor, Harris.

The two men were out on Chesapeake Bay with congregants for Beth El’s annual men’s fishing trip. It was anything but a lazy afternoon on the water.

The rabbis set out in separate boats, each joined by fellow fisherman. Harris’ group caught the most fish.

But Rudolph’s fish weighed more. ■

Suzanne Pollak is a freelance writer. WJW Editor David Holzel contributed to this article.

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