Rabbi Sidney A. Wolf, founding president of the Corpus Christi Symphony, was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on December 8, 1906. He was the eldest child of immigrant wholesale grocers Israel and Sophie Wolf. A musical prodigy, Wolf began taking piano lessons at age seven. By age thirteen, he was the youngest member of a musical combo performing at fraternity parties and wedding receptions. Soon after, his parents bought him his first pair of trousers, lest his knickers betray his youth. His high marks while he was a high school senior at the Cleveland Jewish Center in 1923 and 1924 won him several books on Jewish law and lore. Gradually, he made up his mind to become a community-oriented rabbi, a spiritual leader who would blend music with religion.
Wolf enrolled in 1924 at Hebrew Union College, the Reform Jewish seminary in Cincinnati. Because of his musical training he was invited to play the organ and teach in the religious school in a small congregation in Hamilton, Ohio. During his senior year he served that same congregation as student rabbi. He enjoyed stints at roadside honky-tonks, taught himself to play the saxophone, and organized impromptu concerts in the seminary dormitory. The dormitory's "bumming room" was also the setting for musicales during which Wolf and several members of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra joined other student musicians. While a rabbinical student, Wolf won a scholarship to the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, where he studied piano, organ, theory, and harmony. His rabbinical curriculum included undergraduate classes at the University of Cincinnati; there, in 1929, he earned a B.A. in German. In his unpublished memoirs the rabbi noted that his foreign-language skills proved invaluable when he was poring through German music journals to research his rabbinical thesis. That thesis explored the life and impact of German Jewish musician Louis Lewandowski (1821–94), a choral director and composer who popularized organ accompaniment of traditional Jewish prayers. Wolf aspired to lead a congregation with a choir and pipe organ performing music in the style of Lewandowski.
But the rabbi's timing was off. Ordained in May 1932, at the height of the Great Depression, he became eligible for a pulpit when times were hard and congregations were not calling. Wolf received but one offer: a three-month trial at Temple Beth El in Corpus Christi, a congregation formed in 1928 with seventy families who worshipped in a makeshift wooden "shack." According to the rabbi's memoirs, the synagogue, located at Eleventh and Craig streets, had "burlap curtains" rather than interior walls, a pot-bellied stove, and, most disappointing, "a pump organ which wheezed more than giving forth some semblance of musical sound."
Literally and figuratively, Corpus Christi was at the time a cultural desert compared to musical centers like Cincinnati and Cleveland. The South Texas county seat in which Wolf made his new home had 30,000 residents and no formal musical organizations. The best pipe organ in town was the Wurlitzer at the Palace Theater. There were, however, scattered musicians who met informally to play chamber music and enjoy one another's company. Among the young rabbi's possessions was an extensive collection of classical records. To listen to these recordings, he met Sunday afternoons with his Episcopal colleague, Rev. William Capers Munds, who had a phonograph. Other music lovers joined the two clergymen at these music appreciation sessions and were enlightened by the rabbi's insights. Before listening to a recording, Wolf explained the background of the composer and the nuances of each selection.
During the next dozen years, the rabbi tried to organize a local symphony orchestra. The town, however, was not large enough before World War II and the construction of Corpus Christi Naval Air Station to support such an effort. Finally, in 1945, when Corpus Christi Junior College (now Del Mar College) hired Dr. C. Burdette "Bud" Wolfe to establish a campus music department, the circumstances were right. The professor encouraged area musicians to form a part-time symphony. The success of such an endeavor, however, would depend upon raising sufficient money to pay the musicians, to underwrite acquisition of musical scores, to advertise, and to print programs and tickets. The rabbi assumed the fundraising role and became the founding president of the Corpus Christi Symphony Society. With the first $6,500 in contributions, the symphony was launched. The initial concert was performed on December 10, 1945, in the city's largest hall, the 600-seat auditorium at Corpus Christi High School (now Roy Miller High School).
That inaugural season, the sixty-three-member orchestra presented four concerts with two additional performances for children. Ralph Thibodeau, former music critic at the Corpus Christi Caller–Times, recalled, "The orchestra did not have a regular concert schedule. They would rehearse and rehearse and then when they were ready, they would put an ad in the paper announcing the next concert." The repertoire remained traditional: Stravinsky was too avant-garde for the audience, but Bach proved popular. Handel's Messiah featured choral responses alternately sung in Spanish and English. During the orchestra's second season, the symphony performed Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf, narrated by Rabbi Sidney Wolf and conducted by Dr. C. Burdette Wolfe. The newspaper referred to the performance as "Peter and the THREE Wolfs." In those early years the rabbi often substituted during rehearsals for guest pianists. He served as the symphony's program annotator and radio promoter. Wolf also chaired the local chapter of the American Guild of Organists. His early dedication and work helped build the foundation for the Corpus Christi Symphony Orchestra, which continued to enrich the cultural life of the region in the twenty-first century.
Music played a role in each of Rabbi Wolf's marriages. He met his first wife, Sarah Phillips, in 1931 when her parents invited rabbinical students to their Cincinnati home to listen to recorded classical music. His first sight of his bride-to-be, during Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony, found him falling in love. Sidney and Sarah were married in June 1933. She joined him in Texas but returned to Cincinnati in January 1936 to give birth to their son, Phillip. Her sad death from pneumonia six days after their son's birth left the young rabbi disconsolate. The infant remained with his maternal grandmother while the rabbi returned alone to the Texas Gulf Coast.
The rabbi's second wife, Bertha (Bébé) Rosenthal, a native of Chantilly, France, was, like the rabbi, an accomplished pianist. She lived in Lafayette, Louisiana, with her equally-musical mother and sisters. At the suggestion of mutual friends, Wolf wrote Bébé. After an exchange of several letters, he boarded a Southern Pacific Railroad train to Lafayette. It was quickly apparent that the two were meant to be together. They were married on March 4, 1938. Three months later, they journeyed to Cincinnati to reclaim Sidney's son. The boy, Pinney, as he was called, now had a mother and would soon have a sister, Joanne (1940), to share his growing years. Sidney and Bébé's home was always awash in music. Local musicians from Del Mar College would join them to play quartets or listen to piano duos with Sidney on one piano and Bébé on the other.
During Rabbi Wolf's forty-year tenure at Temple Beth El, the congregation built a Moorish-style temple on the same property that was once the site of the wooden shack that had greeted the rabbi when he arrived. Music was always an important element of worship services. Cantatas, as well as piano recitals and duets by the rabbi and his wife, were performed in the sanctuary on many occasions.
Another kind of music rang out from the pulpit of Temple Beth El when in the early 1950s Wolf began inviting black ministers to preach each February during Brotherhood Month. The student choir from the black Solomon M. Coles High School, under the direction of Beulah Smith, became part of that tradition. Gospel hymns were added to the Friday Sabbath services in an era that pre-dated the civil-rights movement. Historian Hollace Ava Weiner wrote extensively about the rabbi's impact on civil rights in The Quiet Voices: Southern Rabbis and Black Civil Rights, 1880s to 1990s (University of Alabama, 1996).
That stunning interracial innovation was, in addition to the annual joint Thanksgiving service, begun in 1935 by Rabbi Wolf and his colleague Reverend Munds. The ecumenical Thanksgiving service, which alternated between the Church of the Good Shepherd and the synagogue, featured the clergymen preaching from one another's pulpits and was featured in the November 30, 1936, issue of Time magazine. Reaching across all divides and creating harmony was a keystone of the rabbi's pragmatic philosophy. Wolf was an active member of the National Conference of Christians and Jews and was presented their Brotherhood and Humanitarian Award in 1974 for his untiring devotion to humanity.
Throughout his life Wolf remained engaged in many civic activities. In 1933 he helped organize and fund the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the United Palestine Appeal. He also served as chaplain to the Naval Air Station, Corpus Christi, a post he held until his retirement. Additionally Wolf chaired the Red Cross in 1937 and the Council of Community Agencies in 1946—that same year, he was the initial chairman of the board of the Hearth, the first nonprofit home for the aged. He also served as president of the Social Welfare Association and chaired the Nueces County Marriage Counseling Board and the Friends of Music of the public library. Later in life, he chaired the Retired Senior Volunteer program and spent countless hours giving musical performances in nursing homes.
When Wolf retired from the pulpit in 1972, he joined the teaching staff at Del Mar College and instituted a music-appreciation class under the Continuing Education Department. Four years later, when he passed age seventy and was forced into mandatory retirement, Jo Ann Luckie, coordinator of the college's Senior Citizens Education Program, seized the opportunity to have the rabbi continue his music-appreciation classes as a volunteer instructor. He continued in this capacity from 1977 to 1982. These well-attended free classes focused on coming programs of the Corpus Christi Symphony. Students who enrolled in the rabbi's course arrived to find him seated at the piano ready to accompany his lectures with musical excerpts.
When the rabbi was diagnosed with cancer and ceased teaching in 1982, 100 of his former students launched a scholarship fund in his honor to assist a deserving music student every year at Del Mar College. Additional contributions to this fund from Temple Beth El and the Church of the Good Shepherd helped it reach the goal of $5,000. A Sidney A. Wolf Orchestra Scholarship has been awarded annually since 1982. Mayor Luther Jones proclaimed November 10, 1982, "Rabbi Sidney Wolf Day" in Corpus Christi. Wolf demonstrated that music could enhance religious worship, traverse cultural divides, and enrich his community. He died of cancer on February 18, 1983, and was buried at Seaside Cemetery in Corpus Christi. In 2000 the Corpus Christi Caller-Times named Wolf one of the city’s top newsmakers of the century.