During the month before Passover of 2008, Maj. Stuart Adam Wolfer, a Long Island-born officer serving in Iraq, frequently emailed his relatives back in the States, asking them to send supplies for the chaplain-led seders he planned to attend in one of Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad palaces.
The supplies arrived in time, but Maj. Wolfer didn’t make it to the seders. He was killed in an April 6 mortar attack, two weeks before Pesach began, on the gym where he was working out inside the Green Zone area of central Baghdad.
He was 36, the father of three young girls. He was buried in Des Moines, Iowa, home of his wife, Lee Anne.
After his body was brought back to the U.S., Maj. Wolfer’s family members sat shiva, which ended on the eve of Passover.
During the week of mourning, his family decided to continue the heavily Jewish, non-sectarian work on behalf of men and women in service that they had begun during his earlier posting in Kuwait three years earlier.
The Major Stuart Adam Wolfer Institute (msawi.org) was born.
The independent, nonpolitical organization, which marks its 10th anniversary this year, offers a variety of educational and morale-building activities for the general public and for military personnel of all faiths. The organization has a special outreach to Jews in uniform that reaches its high point at Pesach.
In recent weeks, Maj. Wolfer’s family and friends, and some soldiers who had served with him, have participated in several programs. The activities include a weekend-long memorial reunion in Yonkers on his 10th yahrtzeit (March 17, or Nisan 1 on the Hebrew calendar), a care-bag-packing afternoon at Congregation Ramath Orah in Manhattan, and the Institute’s annual effort that sends kosher-for-Passover goodies and other yom tov items to soldiers in Iraq.
This year the Institute’s volunteers assembled and shipped — despite rising postal rates — 100 handmade matzah covers and 100 kosher care packages for Jewish troops.
Over the last decade they’re raised, from their growing circle of friends and supporters, more than a quarter of million dollars for their initiative, said his sister, Beverly Wolfer-Nerenberg.
This is what Maj. Wolfer, who was active in BBYO in high school and a lay leader of the American Jews in Iraq, would have wanted, said Wolfer-Nerenberg.
“My brother was a proud American. He was a proud Jew serving in the military,” she said. For her and Maj. Wolfer’s extended family of friends, the Institute’s work is a way to keep his memory, and values, alive. “We didn’t want my brother’s memory and what he was doing [as an altruistic member of the military] to simply die. We see ourselves as my brother’s memory keepers.”
A photograph of Maj. Wolfer posted on the Institute’s website shows him dressed in an Army camouflage uniform, smiling, with a military buzz cut.
“He was very handsome,” his sister said.
Wolfer-Nerenberg, who lives in Yonkers, wears a black memorial bracelet for her brother, and often wears a Gold Star pin, awarded to relatives of U.S. service members who have made the ultimate sacrifice. “I live with this all the time.”
Maj. Wolfer grew up in Dix Hills, L.I., and later moved with his family to Coral Springs, Fla. His parents are Esther and Len Wolfer.
He was an outstanding high school athlete who joined the ROTC officer training program in college because of his commitment to “the concept of service,” his sister said.
Her daughter Leah is following in her uncle’s footsteps — she recently made aliyah and enlisted in the Israeli Army. “My brother had a very big influence on her life,” Wolfer-Nerenberg said.
Her brother, upon graduation from Washington University in St. Louis, was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant.
He later earned a law degree from Loyola University in Los Angeles, served in the Army Reserves, training one weekend per month, and worked as a regional representative in Idaho and Montana for the Thomson-Reuters Legal Division. In 2004 he was called to active duty in Kuwait. And in 2007, to Iraq.
Maj. Wolfer was assigned to the 11th Battalion, 104th Division, working with the Multi National Security Transition Command-Iraq-Logistics/Operation branch and serving as a liaison to the area’s small Jewish community. Using his legal background, he worked as an administrator; in his off time, he helped rebuild the Boy Scouts of Iraq, learned to play cricket, challenged his wife in on-line Scrabble games, counseled fellow members of the Army, and regularly attended Friday evening worship services.
“He had a purpose beyond himself,” Wolfer-Nerenberg said.
After he died, he posthumously received the Purple Heart and Bronze Star Medal, in addition to more than a dozen other service awards he had earned.
An attorney friend of the family, knowing of the Wolfers’ commitment to public service, offered to help Maj. Wolfer’s survivors form a 501c3 tax exempt organization, to carry on their work for members of the Armed Services.
The Institute sponsors lectures at synagogues, schools and other Jewish and public institutions, runs educational programs on Memorial Day and other national holidays, recycles stars from “retired” U.S. flags which are then given to soldiers and their families as a token of recognition, and participates in a project that provides members of the military with cell phone calling card minutes for overseas calls.
The Institute’s message: appreciate and thank members of the military. “I never thanked my brother for his service,” Wolfer-Nerenberg said through tears.
Working with several dozen Jewish organizations in the Tri-State area, and others across the country, the Institute has reached more than 3,000 men and women in uniform, Wolfer-Nerenberg said.
The soldiers often send their thanks via email, she said. They write that the care packages offer “a taste of home.”
Working for the Institute, being reminded of her loss every day, “is hard,” Wolfer-Nerenberg said. But, she added, it’s also “an opportunity to heal.”
At her family’s seder this year, as at every seder since Maj. Wolfer died, an empty seat will serve as a silent reminder of him.
And Maj. Wolfer’s memory lives on in her son, to whom she gave the Hebrew name Shmuel Eliezer Avraham; Maj. Wolfer’s Hebrew name was Shmuel Luza Avraham.
The bris of Wolfer-Nerenberg’s son, and his public naming, took place on her brother’s first yahrzeit.
“It was bashert,” she said.