On an early autumn day 45 years ago, Rabbi Dan Wolk entered his study at Congregation Emanu-El of Westchester in Rye and found, laying on his Torah—right atop the Book of Genesis—a cream colored envelope with a cross on it.
“How did a cross get into a rabbi’s study?” he recalled with a laugh as he began to retell the story to Catholic New York of how he came to teach at School of the Holy Child in Rye. The invitation came from Sister Mary Campion, S.H.C.J., who, in her note, asked if he would be willing to teach a few sessions on the prophets.
It was just after the Second Vatican Council, and the note said, “Pope John XXII asked the Catholic community to reach out to our Jewish brethren. In the spirit of Vatican II would you be willing to meet with me and explore the possibility of teaching an occasional class…”
Those few sessions turned into a few courses, which turned into a few years, and into much more. Rabbi Dan has taught courses on the Old Testament and Faith in the Modern World at the girls’ school. He is the school’s longest-serving teacher, with the 2016-2017 academic year being his 45th.
Now rabbi emeritus at Congregation Emanu-El of Westchester, he retired in 2010.
Rabbi Dan said that Holy Child has always been a very welcoming and open school. When he began teaching in 1971, however, he was a bit of a novelty. “At first the students were very serious because they didn’t have exposure. Once in a while, they called me ‘Father Dan…whoops,’” he said.
“Today,” he said, “many of the girls have friends who have celebrated bat or bar mitzvahs. They have celebrated Passover with Jewish friends.
“Exposure to other faiths is very important,” he added. “Hopefully, the girls here who have contact with me will not form stereotypes. My being here is in part an argument for accepting others.”
Wearing a gray suit with a blue shirt and pink tie with the school mascot, a griffin, printed on it, he said, “The one thing I don’t want to do is convert anyone to Judaism from their Catholic faith, for which I have great respect.”
Rabbi Dan is at home in the classroom. His teaching style is informal, and his storytelling ability—with a focus on Old Testament Biblical stories—includes metaphors for how to incorporate faith into daily life.
At the beginning of his class, “Faith in the Modern World,” he pointed out an important fact. He told the seniors, “Sometimes you and I are going to differ. Your way is primarily through Catholicism. My way is through Judaism.”
After class, Charlotte Brosnan told CNY that she admired Rabbi Dan’s lesson and was “very excited” to see how the course would continue to unfold.
“I think he brings a different insight into religion in general because he knows a different side of it. Like he said, you can go to the same place, but take different paths there. I’m interested to learn about his path,” she said.
Another senior, Grace Doern, said, “I really like what he had to say. I’m looking forward to this year. The class will help me think in a different way and look at life in a new perspective.”
Catherine Curran Suther, a member of the Class of 1977 and current religion teacher at Holy Child, said, “I had Rabbi Dan for my Old Testament class junior year. I felt like I had learned from the best.”
She still uses the same Bible she had as a student at Holy Child—complete with slightly faded notes in the margins and cover from Rabbi Dan’s class.
“We try to broaden our students and help them along their journey to own their faith. He is modeling for the students interfaith respect and love,” she said.