Wohl looking forward to new assignment

Rabbi will miss people of Altoona

Rabbi Josh Wohl of the Agudath Achim Congregation is looking forward to his new assignment at Kol Shalom Congregation in Annapolis, Maryland, but he will miss the people he has come to know in the past seven years. Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec

When Rabbi Josh Wohl leaves Agudath Achim Congregation later this month, he will do with mixed emotions.

He is looking forward to his new assignment at Kol Shalom Congregation in Annapolis, Maryland, but will miss the people of Altoona.

However, Wohl is confident that the congregation with its “can-do spirit” will remain strong.

“It is small but mighty,” Wohl said.

“It’s like a family,” he added, noting that such cooperation is not always the case in congregations with hundreds of members and people believe someone else will volunteer.

“People (here) don’t wait to step up,” he said. “They do things together. They want to get involved.”

Wohl has witnessed that spirit for the past seven years as he and his family have developed relationships with the congregation.

One of those members is Phyllis Port, who said, “He is a rabbi and a friend who has been there for us and our congregation. My husband and I and our entire family are big fans of Rabbi Josh. He has a depth of knowledge and a good sense of humor to go along with it.”

Port said Wohl “speaks beautiful sermons” and relates the Torah (Old Testament Scripture) to current times.

She also appreciates his ability to work with youth as well as adults as witnessed at her grandson’s bar mitzvah.

“(Rabbi Wohl) does an excellent job preparing students for their bar and bat mitzvahs,” she said. “Adam conducted the service, chanted from the Torah and gave his own little sermon. At 13, it is a great accomplishment.”

Wohl said it was a privilege to see children who were in the primary grades when he came to the area mature and lead a service at their bar or bat mitzvah.

In their later teen years, he prepares the students for confirmation by familiarizing them with social justice work. Each year, he has taken confirmation candidates to Washington, D.C., where they painted homes in low-income housing areas, worked in the food pantry at the D.C. Central Kitchen in the city and visited the Holocaust Museum.

In addition, he welcomed junior high students to the synagogue where he spoke about Judaism as part of the Celebrate Diversity program.

For young adults, he held Torah on Tap and informal learning sessions at Panera Bread.

Because the need to learn never stops, Wohl facilitated a Torah study for adults that began with Genesis and concluded with II Kings as well as a book club with a Jewish focus.

Roz Sky called Wohl “an unbelievable, special caring (spiritual leader).”

“His sermons are so meaningful and uplifting,” she said, adding that he consistently delivers a quality message. “He is so good at it that you wonder how he does it.”

And not only does he address the congregants on the Sabbath but is a friend to them outside the synagogue doors.

He has played tennis and had fun with congregants as well as being there for them in moments of personal need, Sky said.

Clark Adelman also considers Wohl a friend and commented that he was president of the synagogue when Wohl became its spiritual leader.

“We’ve been here together the whole time,” he said.

Adelman added that Wohl’s wife, Julie, who is a Jewish artist and an educator, has also been a big part of the community.

Adelman plans to keep in touch with the Wohls, and their two sons, Sam, 11, and Micah, 8, when he visits his own son in the Baltimore area.

“I will go to services there (Kol Shalom Congregation),” he said.

Henry Weinberg is also among the congregants who respect and admire Wohl.

“I have a very strong relationship with him as a spiritual leader and as a friend. He is going to be missed by me and my wife, Maxine,” Weinberg said.

He called the depth of Wohl’s knowledge as indescribable and that his sermons leave him with a feeling of joy.

Bill Wallen, who is a congregant and executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Altoona, said he has become a student of Judaism and continually desires to know more.

“He challenges me,” he said of Wohl, “and has added depth to my understanding.”

Wallen said that even in informal conversation, Wohl will add a comment or a reference to a Jewish writer or a point in Jewish history.

When Wallen is planning a presentation to give at a college, high school or any other audience, he said Wohl will contribute an additional point that he had not thought about.

“He helps me understand it (my topic) better, so I am able to give a better presentation,” Wallen said.

And whether it is a Torah study, the book club or a sermon, Wohl seems to be able to enrich the lives of the congregants and contribute to their Jewish learning.

“He challenges us or adds to our knowledge. He keeps it interesting and is easy to listen to,” Wallen said.

When Wohl leaves, the book club will lose its facilitator but not its desire to meet.

“It is interesting, stimulating and meaningful to people,” Wallen said of the club. “All of us are learning together, teaching each other.”

They will sustain it and other aspects of their Jewish faith because Agudath Achim Congregation is “small but mighty” and will carry on until a new rabbi is found.