In 1983, Jewish community leader and philanthropist Larry Wolfe experienced a major change in his outlook and attitude toward Jewish life.

While on a mission to Israel with his wife Andi, Wolfe — despite not wanting to go initially— had a revelation as to what being Jewish truly meant.

“Going to Israel changed my outlook not only on my religion, but, more importantly, on my Jewish identity and how important it was to understand our Jewish traditions,” Wolfe, 73, says.

It was a “legacy that was brought to us over thousands of years,” he explains, and even more so when the State of Israel came into existence in 1948.

Back home in Michigan, Wolfe became seriously involved in Jewish life and volunteer work. Since then, he’s been to Israel more than 100 times and continues to help lead Jewish culture in Metro Detroit.

Now, nearly 40 years later, he’s made such an impact on the local community (and national and international Jewish life) that Wolfe will be receiving this year’s Fred M. Butzel Award from the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit to honor his lifetime of service, impact, and commitment.

“Since 1951, the Fred M. Butzel Award has represented the community’s highest honor for volunteer leadership,” says Steven Ingber, Federation CEO. “I cannot think of anyone more deserving of this award than my friend and mentor, Larry Wolfe.”

Born in London, Ontario, and growing up in the old Dexter-Davison area, a Jewish enclave in Detroit that his family moved to when he was 6 years old, Wolfe was immersed in Judaism from a young age. He attended a Yeshiva Beth Yehudah afternoon school for Hebrew, later moving to Oak Park in the 1960s, where a strong Jewish community also existed.

Law and Business

Sweethearts since high school, Larry and Andi Wolfe

In 1970, he married Andi, his high school sweetheart. Wolfe attended Wayne State University and then Detroit College of Law to pursue his lifelong dream of becoming an attorney. He and Andi have two children: Jeremy, who lives in Huntington Woods, and Ericka, who lives in Chicago. The Wolfes have six grandchildren. For a little over seven years, Wolfe practiced law with a mid-sized firm in Detroit before a new opportunity presented itself.

When Andi’s father, philanthropist D. Dan Kahn, invited Wolfe to join his family business of distributing industrial supplies, Wolfe accepted the proposition. In fact, he remained with the company until 2017, when he ultimately sold it. Yet in those in-between years, Wolfe began his steady involvement in local Jewish affairs, largely inspired by his father-in-law and that Israel trip.

In the late 1980s, Wolfe was introduced to the Jewish Community Center by his friend and mentor Jerry Sobel. Calling it a “natural fit,” Wolfe became involved with the organization and worked his way up to eventually be elected president in 1997. There, he met various Jewish community leaders, including people involved with Federation.

When asked to take a chair on the board of governors at Federation following his three-year term as president of the JCC, Wolfe gladly accepted. He also became president of Adat Shalom Synagogue. “That’s when I became very, very active, not only in the synagogue, but going to synagogue on a regular basis,” Wolfe says.

Federation President

Wolfe began to attend services every Shabbat. His interest in the Jewish community only blossomed, as did his work with Federation. After working on a number of Federation committees over the years, Wolfe eventually was elected president in 2015.

In his three years as Federation president, Wolfe is particularly proud of several achievements under his watch as president of Federation, including moving Federation’s education department to the JCC, which could give the Center better focus on how they serve people within the community through learning initiatives.

Larry and Andi Wolfe, who often volunteer together, were also both elected to the board of World ORT, a global education network driven by Jewish values. There, they were two of five Detroiters elected to a group of what Larry Wolfe estimates to be around 45 Jewish individuals.

Yet these initiatives only begin to scrape the surface of Wolfe’s work in Jewish Detroit and beyond. As president of the D. Dan and Betty Kahn Foundation, established by Andi’s family, Wolfe presented a $20 million gift to expand the Michigan-Israel Partnership for Research and Education.

He’s also held board positions with the Jewish Fund, Kids Kicking Cancer, the Detroit Zoological Society and Jewish Hospice & Chaplaincy Network, among many other organizations.

In addition, Wolfe was also past chair of the State of Israel Bonds for Metropolitan Detroit.

‘True Heroes’

“A past-president of the Jewish Federation, Larry has held a wide variety of volunteer positions and roles at Federation and organizations throughout Jewish Detroit and beyond,” CEO Ingber says. “More than this, Larry and his wife, Andi, have been true community heroes, always stepping up to offer their generous support, as well as their heart and soul, whenever the need arises.”

Andi Wolfe adds that being volunteer-driven is a “piece of our fabric” when it comes to their marriage. “Everything he touches, he puts his whole body and soul into,” she says of her husband’s drive to better the community and share Jewish life with others.

Ingber adds, “To this day, Larry remains one of the most active and dynamic leaders in our community, and I know he will continue to make a difference for many years to come.

“I am truly thrilled to see Larry receive this much-deserved recognition.”

(This article first appeared in the Detroit Jewish News.)