Narrator: Mr. Elliot Wolin
Interviewer/Transcriber: Solomon Alpert
Assistant Interviewer/Indexer: Ellen Childress
Interview Date: 04 / 08 / 08
Interview Time: 7:38pm-9:31pm
Equipment: Sony ICD-ST25 Digital Voice Recorder (SP Setting); 2 Radio Shack lapel
condenser microphones (70-16,000 Hz frequency Response)
I interviewed Elliot Wolin in an upstairs room at Temple Beth El on Jamestown Road.
Mr. Wolin moved to Williamsburg in 1994, and is a researcher in particle physics. We
discussed his Jewish experience from childhood up until the point of the interview. He
spoke about acting as president of the temple, his Jewish upbringing, and his children (as
well as many other topics).
Important Note: A series of three periods denotes a break in the spoken sentence and not
necessarily a pause.
Solomon Alpert: This is Solomon Alpert for the Williamsburg Documentary Project. It is
Tuesday, April 8th 2008, at 7:38 pm. We are at Temple Beth El on Jamestown Road,
interviewing Elliot Wolin. Mr. Wolin, for the record, would you give meyour name in
whatever form you prefer.
Elliot Wolin: Ok. I’m Elliot Wolin, and I’m president of the temple. Since, uh, since I got
here in 1994.
S: Um, I guess first off I’ll just ask, uh, how long have you lived in Williamsburg?
E: Well, since 94, that’s fourteen years.
S: Um, and so did you join the temple right away when you got here?
E: Yeah, as a matter of fact I checked it out during my interview talks. I started over at
William and Mary, so when I first came down for an interview, I searched for the temple
synagogue at that point. I had kids who were in, uh, Hebrew school in, uh, Connecticut.
So the first thing was, where’s the Hebrew school.
S: Um, and where had you lived before you moved here?
E: New Haven area in Connecticut. I worked for Yale University. I lived in a smaller
town called Hamden right next to New Haven. New Haven is a bigger...is a city in the
S: Um, what do you do, I guess, professionally right now?
Elliot Wolin 04 / 08 / 08
E: I’m a scientist. I study, uh…I do research in particle and nuclear physics. So when I
was at Yale I was doing research, and then I came here to William and Mary, continued
doing research. And then, uh, I moved on to Jefferson Lab in, uh, Newport News, where
I’m continuing doing research.
S: Um, did you enjoy your jobs?
E: Well, yeah, yeah.
E: It’s lots of fun. Very interesting. Doesn’t pay that well, but [laughter] pays ok.
E: Not like being a doctor or a lawyer, you know?
S: Um, so uh, how would you say you temple involvement, Jewish involvement in
general, kind of fits into your schedule?
E: You mean right now?
E: Well, let’s see. As president, you know, I suppose probably work an hour every night
on this. I get…I sit down, on my e-mail, I’ve got, you know, twenty e-mails with
synagogue business. You know, little things. You know, and then there’s committee
meetings. It’s, uh…When I agreed to, uh, be president, my wife and I realized there’s
gonna be a big drain on time. Most of my spare time. Not most. A lot of my spare time.
So, uh, and then of course there’s services on the weekend, and I have a bible study class
on the weekend. So, it’s uh, it’s a lotta time.
S: Um, I mean do you find it fulfilling overall?
E: Oh yeah, yeah. You really feel like, you know, a community needs a synagogue, and
you’re helping make it happen, so that’s great. It’s fulfilling, you know. In all…ev…in
many different ways: personally, you know, socially, you get to meet lots of people. Um,
I couldn’t keep it up for years on end, that’s for sure. It’s, uh, it’s one of those things
where you’re very happy when it’s over…
E: But you’re very happy you did it [laughter].
S: Yeah. So do you find that you’ve met, like, uh…So you probably meet a good
majority of the congregants here?
Elliot Wolin 04 / 08 / 08
E: Mm. We have a lot of congregants who are retired and don’t really show up very often.
Maybe they’re elderly, you know, they don’t get out often. So, I don’t think I’ve met the
majority, but maybe around half. Maybe, third to a half probably. It’s embarrassing when
you’ve met somebody, and you’re trying to remember, “ok what’s their name?” You
know, I know I’ve met, I know I know that name [laughter].
S: Um, and I guess, um, just generally, before you came to Williamsburg, what was kind
of your Jewish involvement?
E: Let’s see. When I was a kid, of course, I went to synagogue, and had a Bar Mitzvah.
After that, I didn’t really do anything for many years. Until…this is very common…until
I had children. I went to synago…I went to synagogue on High Holidays, fasted.
Sometimes I didn’t go, but I always fasted on Yom Kippur. Boy that was about it for, oh
boy, many years. And then you have the kids, that’s…a little bomb goes off. You realize
they have to have a Jewish education, a religious education. Happens to everybody. And
so that’s when it started. My youngest, er, oldest was, I don’t know…seven. Whatever it
was, you start, you know, Sunday School. That was in Connecticut.
S: Um, I guess, maybe kind of switch gears a little bit. Uh, where’d you grow up?
S: How’d you make your way to Williamsburg? [indistinguishable over interviewee]
E: Yeah. Let’s see. Well I was born in Brooklyn, New York. That’s, for uh, for people
born in Brooklyn, that’s the real Brooklyn. So, everything you hear about Brooklyn,
that’s the place. And, uh, my neighborhood was about one third Jewish, one third Italian,
and one third, uh, Polish. So, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish. Synagogues, churches…well
not…Synagogues all over the…well, you know, it’s New York, it’s Brooklyn. So, things
all over the place. You know, people generally got along well. So, I went to school in
Albany, and went to grad school in Seattle, and got my first post doc in, uh, at Yale. And
I…little unusual, stayed there for about eleven years, almost eleven years. Often post-
docs move around a lot, but I didn’t. And, uh, then, well without giving too much detail,
funding took a nosedive. And my funding disappeared, so I was out of a job at Yale. And
then, uh, a job at William and Mary opened up. And that’s how I got here.
E: And the funding for that job disappeared shortly after I arrived, but then I…luckily I
found a job at Jefferson Lab. Been doing the same thing I’ve always been doing, research.
S: Um, so you said before as a…as a kid, you kind of went to temple, I guess, er, in
whatever form, until your Bar Mitzvah. And then you kind of…kind of stopped off.
E: That’s right. Yeah I lost…I think I went for one year, for…after Confirmation class.
Hated it. Would rather be playing, you know, baseball or football or something. And
Elliot Wolin 04 / 08 / 08
uh…Well, my parents kinda made me go. And then, I think, it wasn’t such a great
experience, so they didn’t make my other [chuckle] brothers…I have three other brothers.
None of them went to confirmation. They all had their Bar Mitzvah, that was it. They
didn’t go the next year. And then, uh, my family was not particularly observant, almost
not observant at all. And uh, but they…we had our, all had our Bar Mitzvah ceremony,
our celebrations and stuff. That’s where it ended I guess.
S: I mean, did you find any point in that, kind of enjoyable for yourself?
E: Mm. It wasn’t that bad, but of course, you know, in those days, you went three days a
week. Let’s see, Sunday morning was a couple hours…two and a half hours. And
Tuesday and Thursday afternoon for an hour and a half. I’d much rather be playing
hockey, baseball, soc…you know, and everything. You know, I was very sports oriented,
so I resented the loss of time. I think that’s true for every body. I learned things, but, uh,
when it was over I was glad it was over.
S: So would you say after your Bar Mitzvah you still kind of considered yourself Jewish?
E: Oh yeah, no doubt about that. It isn’t that I considered myself not Jewish, I just didn’t
wanna have much to do with the organized part.
S: Yeah. Um, so I guess, uh, I dunno through high school, you didn’t…you weren’t…you
were very, kind of…not like very traditionally observent.
E: No no. Absolutely not. We went to reform synagogue.
S: Uh huh.
E: And we were at the, uh, you know, near, uh, the extreme end, you know, where you
almost do nothing. Both my parents, you know, had, uh, had parents who were orthodox
when they were young. And then they come to the United States, you know, and it just
disappears and, you know, they wanted to be American. Not Jewish. They wanted to be
American, first. Cause in those days, Jewish people weren’t so well accepted. Later on
that changed…They were proud of being Jewish. But there was a time when you
wanted…you kinda hid it. The 40’s and 50’s you kinda hid it. One thing they did at
synagogue when I was a kid, I remember, which I thought was great: To get you to come
to Saturday services, they gave you candy after the service…[laughter] it was great. And
if you were really clever, you could get in line twice. You know, had the hat, change your
hat, or change…switch jackets with somebody. “I wasn’t in line before.” Principle said,
“I thought I saw you”…“No, it wasn’t me”…“Alright.” So you get double candy
S: Um, I guess kinda…kinda generally, um, were your parents, uh, born in America and
E: Yep. Both born in the U.S. Both first generation. Both their parents were born outside.
Elliot Wolin 04 / 08 / 08
S: Um, so, how’d you kinda end up going to uh, you said you went to school in Albany?
E: I went to undergraduate in Albany. New York as a, uh, state school system, and a very
good in-state tuition. And scholarships that are only good in-state. So, that…that sealed
that. All, uh, all four of us just went to in-sate schools. There was no question. I think I
had free tuition for four years. It wasn’t that much back then. You’d laugh. Four hundred
fifty dollars for tuition for a semester. But, you know, uh…still a lotta money. I think my
freshman year I think tuition was two hundred fifty. 1970…1. Uh. So we got a
regent…All the kids…I think all my family got a regents scholarship, covered the tuition.
S: What were you studying in college?
E: Physics and mathematics.
S: Um, were, had…
E: And computers too…pardon?
S: Had you always kind of been interested in those subjects? Is that kind of…
E: Yeah. Well let’s see. I was always interested in science and math. Then I took a whole
bunch, and then decided, in high school, realized I liked physics the best. So…I was
actually a physics and math major. Double major or whatever.
S: At what point did you kind of get pointed toward the profession you hold now, I guess
in your school career?
E: Yeah. It’s probably very early. It’s hard to realize when a decision was made, but I
knew I liked physics when…I knew physics was it when I took my first physics class. So
th…that was probably in high school. I didn’t realize I was gonna be a physiscist then,
but that’s what I was interested in. More than math, and more that all the
other…chemistry, and biology and everything. So right from the top, my first physics
class I probably, sort of knew I was gonna have a career in physics.
S: So you said that when you kind of, had children is when you um…did you get married
E: No. Graduate school. When I was in graduate school. We met in college. And went
our different ways to graduate school, and then we got back together.
S: So you said when you had, uh, when you had kids you kind of became more involved,
er, more interested in like, I guess, uh, Jewish practice, Jewish observance. Um, how has
that kind of…?
E: Well. I’ll say it a different way. When we had the…When the kids…When the oldest
became old enough. Seven I guess. I wasn’t so much interested in practice, as much as
Elliot Wolin 04 / 08 / 08
they needed a Jewish education. So we put em into Sunday school in Connecticut. And
then we moved here. I can’t remember if my daughter, er, middle kid started there as well.
Maybe…I think she started here. And then, uh. Observance. Well I didn’t get…I didn’t
start too much in observance until I guess I…When did I start coming to services
regularly? Ok well, we had the…When the kids were having their Bar of Bat Mitzvah
training, they had to go to Friday and Saturday services at various times in the month. So
I guess I started like taking them. My wife and I would take turns. Or something. Or, you
know, various things. Uh, that’s when I kinda started. And then I got on the board, and,
you know, president. I was president man years ago, 2000 and 1 or something. That’s
when I started going regularly, I think. Around 2001, like 2000.
S: So I guess, in hindsight, kind of, um, were you kinda glad that you were
raised…er…were you glad that Judaism was kind of a part of your childhood
E: You know, I’d say it wasn’t that big of a deal. And my other brothers are completely,
uh…my three older brothers. Really they have nothing to do, at synagogues, and Jewish
practice. They still know they’re Jewish and, you know, believe in Jewish things, but in
terms of ritual and practice. Er, sorry, I take that back. There’s a strong correlation here.
Two of my brothers have no kids, have not married, have any kids. My other brother,
who’s married and has four kids actually also is kinda the same thing, now that I think
about it. Kids started going to synagogue, and then he got involved too. He’s taking
classes. And I don’t know if he goes regularly, but, um, but he had to take each of his
kids in turn had to be brought to services, so he uh…that’s when he did it. So, sounds like
a parallel, now that I think about it. Just like me. But he’s not involved…That’s not true,
he is involved. He’s kind of following…I just realized now, I hadn’t though about it. He’s
kind of doing just like me. He’s not president or anything, this is a big Long Island place,
so they’re not begging people to be president [laughter] I exaggerate but. So I guess two
of us follow along with it. And two, it’s not part of their lives. The correlation is kids.
S: Um, so when you said at first, when you started kind of like, you know, giving your
children a Jewish education, did you find it was kind of like maybe a bit of a chore, that
you were kind of just sitting them, or did you kind of…did you also get some kind of,
maybe enjoyment out of it. Er, I guess, interest again.
E: Yeah. I think. I mean, it was a bit of a chore in the beginning. You gotta bring em on
Friday night, and then tomorrow, you know. But, um, I was glad, I wanted them to do it.
That was…That was not negotiable. And then I guess…Yeah I…That’s right I remember
now in Connecticut. When they started, I started taking some classes just to do something,
nighttime classes. And I started getting interested in…in the, uh, the more adult aspects.
Cause…how did a friend of mine put it...He said most people, he’s a Christian but…He
said, uh,[indistinguishable]Most people have a, he called it, a parody of a third grade
religious education. That’s what they understand. And, uh, so you have to come back as
an adult, and see everything again, and realize, you know, those kids’ stories were for
kids. It wasn’t quite…That isn’t quite what it’s about. And the funny thing is when you
see otherwise intelligent people criticizing religious things, er you know. And it sounds,
Elliot Wolin 04 / 08 / 08
like my friend said, a parody of a third grade discussion, you know. It’s clear they never
learned anything…They haven’t learned anything about it since third grade. So I decided
to learn about it.
S: Um, so I guess maybe just initially, kind of, what things did you find meaningful about
it. Did you kinda like you had the same kinda feelings as when you were a kid at all. Or
was it very much different?
E: No, it was different. As an adult, it was…it started off purely intellectually. I just
wanted to learn about it as an intellectual subject. And also the recognition…there’s some
books, very good books lately…The recognition that Western morality is basically
biblical morality. So I say “Ok, where did that come from?” You know, what are they
saying, you know. You kinda think…some people think that with Western morality
comes, you know…can be deduced logically. Or, you know, it’s a humanist kind of idea,
where it’s a natural thing. And then it’s not cause, just, historically it’s clear. This kind of
morality did not appear many places, very often. And a lot of civilizations, and even
today have a completely different moral basis. So it’s not a logical consequence of
anything. It’s kind of, uh…just sorta came out of nothing. In the middle east, no.
Buddhism has analogues…I mean, there are analogues in other, in other religions. But,
um, I always tell people, you know there’s raiding societies, there was Mongols. You
know, they didn’t have those kind of, you know, those kind of, uh, morality. Their
morality was conquer and, you know. Then there’s, uh, Pagan virtues, you know, the
Romans the Greeks, the Pagan societies.
S: So do you find you take a lot of interest in, uh, maybe even comparing your own
religion to the…maybe the other practices?
E: Oh yeah, definitely. Yeah, I re…I read a lot of…I have read a lot of comparative
religion. Now all I do is synagogue business, but, you know, it’s [laughter] not that much
time for any [indistinguishable]. When I’m not president, then I like reading comparative
religion, and religious philosophy, and things, you know, like that.
S: So what aspects of those do you say you find the most interesting, the most, um,
enlightening, I guess?
E: I sort of mentioned before, moral…moral underpinnings of various religions. Some
books try to claim that there’s a nugget of…there’s a certain universal thing that’s
among…underneath lining all religions. You know, love your neighbor as yourself kinda
stuff. But well, I’m not…well [indistinguishable]They make a good case for that. Um, the
problem is, is uh…Well, one guy wrote, uh…forgot his name now…Um, the problem
is…to see the nugget of…see what’s underneath your religion when it’s dressed with this
cultural baggage, it’s difficult. You have to really dig. And what the people who
understand the religion real well believe in the average person in the street or in the farm,
you know, or in the, you know, out in the fields believes may be vastly different. So, it’s,
uh, it’s a little bit tricky to, uh, to figure that out. There’s a book called The Rel…“The
Elliot Wolin 04 / 08 / 08
World’s Religions” by Huston Smith. I think there’s a good [indistinguishable]that I just
S: Um, so uh, I guess when you first started kinda getting involved in temple and things
like that again. Uh, Did you go to a lot of…Were there like, like group classes. Or was it
more kind of, just individual work on that?
E: Yeah, well, let’s see. I started. I said I started in Connecticut taking some classes. And
then I got here, and wasn’t doing much, and then somebody asked me to be on the board.
And I, I was like flabbergasted. I said, “I know nothing about being on a board.” He says
“You don’t have to know anything.” “But I don’t know anything about the religion.”
“You don’t have to know anything…” They countered my every argument, why I wasn’t
qualified. You don’t have to be qualified. You know. So I got on the board. And then I
got involved with committees, and then just…So now when, uh, I ask somebody to be on
the board and they say, “But I don’t know anything about it,” I say “You don’t have to
know anything.” “But I’m not qualified,” “You don’t have to be qualified.” Cause it’s
true. All you have to do is have a semi-intelligent, and have a good heart. Even though a
good heart’s more important, you know, and wanted. There’s no qualifications. You have
experts for the things that there are experts.
S: Uh huh.
E: Your first thought is you have to be an expert in something. You don’t have to be an
S: Yeah. Uh, real quickly, jumping back, sorry I forgot to ask. Um, uh how many kids do
S: Three. Are they…have they all, uh, become Bar Mitzvah?
E: Yeah. Yeah. Well the youngest is a freshman at UVA so. So they’re way beyond that.
And the oldest is in law school right now. UVA law school by coincidence. And my
daughter just graduate…is about to graduate from William and Mary. Maybe you know
her. Rachel. She’s an RA in uh, er, which dorm? Dupont maybe?
E: I’m not sure which dorm anymore
Elliot Wolin 04 / 08 / 08