GREENSBORO — Rina Sky Wolfgang, the popular Hebrew and World History teacher whose Grimsley High community raised money to get her to Israel one last time after she was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive cancer, has died. She was 65.
Wolfgang, who had appendix cancer, boarded a flight in 2015 with the bag of medicines for her terminal illness and the notes from others she was to deliver when she got to the Wailing Wall, which in the Jewish tradition is thought of as God’s mailbox.
The trip was inspired by someone asking if she had a last wish, which she said was a spiritual one.
Like many Jews, Wolfgang felt an emotional attachment to Israel, which is considered home.
She didn’t worry about the toll the long flight would take.
“If that’s where my life is to end, that’s where my life will end,” Wolfgang, the daughter of noted civil rights activist Rabbi Harry Sky, said before departure. “You have to recognize what you can’t control.”
A memorial will be held at 4:30 p.m. Sunday at Beth David Synagogue.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made in her memory to the Rina Sky Wolfgang Memorial Scholarship Fund. Checks can be made out to: Jewish Foundation of Greensboro Attn: Rina's Fund, and sent to 5509-C West Friendly Ave, Greensboro, NC
Early on, doctors had given her a 28 percent chance of surviving the rare cancer.
To get her to Israel, students sold pink “Rina” wristbands for a few dollars.
Former students, co-workers and others wrote checks big and small.
“She is the kind of teacher who gets in your heart,” Barbara Barrett, whose son was in Wolfgang’s class, said in 2015 of the outpouring of support.
When the Grimsley community took up the fundraising to send Wolfgang to Israel, she had not touched the ground there since she was a college student.
The “Rina to Israel” campaign raised about $13,000 so that family members could accompany Wolfgang. The money also ensured Wolfgang could hire a personal driver, so she could avoid germs through public transportation and also be able to travel at will. Her son Jacob and daughter-in-law Katie ended up traveling with her.
“It’s so overwhelming to me, even now, how generous and supportive this community is,” Wolfgang said at the time.
In the days before she left, Wolfgang often showed up at school wearing an “Israel or Bust” T-shirt.
When Wolfgang returned from her trip, she continued teaching.
“I’m just going to live,” she said at the time.
And she continued to teach even through chemotherapy treatments.
“She just seems happy,” student Greyson Grandis said of Wolfgang in October, as she went around the room helping students individually — even offering to write recommendation letters for college applications.
Wolfgang, who wore pink-tinged glasses, had a reputation outside the Grimsley community.
The Hebrew class she teaches is not offered in another public school in the country. Last year, just seven schools in the world — including Grimsley — had students registered in the subject to take International Baccalaureate exams for which they might earn college credit.
Wolfgang had attended the mandatory training class for instructors while in the throes of treatment and not feeling well.
“They are getting my best,” Wolfgang said. “If I didn’t feel like I was doing the best I could, I would retire.”
Wolfgang grew up in Maine before moving to North Carolina in 2006.
She was hired at B’nai Shalom, a Jewish day school, before eventually teaching Hebrew in the mornings at Elon University and in the afternoons at Grimsley. Soon she was at Grimsley full-time, teaching Hebrew and history.
Many of those B’nai Shalom kids signed up to take her course at Grimsley.
It was on a return trip to Maine in 2011, for a celebration for her father, that Wolfgang felt out of sorts.
Doctors found a ruptured, cancerous appendix and removed it.
Nine months later, she felt a knot beneath her belly button.
Doctors found 30 cancerous tumors there.
It was a type of cancer that can’t be seen on an X-ray until it grows.
A colonoscopy only detects 1 in 20 cases.
So by the time doctors made the discovery, the cancer was in a late stage, with tumors that can react differently to treatment.
“It is a formidable tumor,” Dr. Edward Levine, the chief of oncology surgery at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, said at the time. The hospital had several ongoing studies related to Wolfgang’s cancer.
Wolfgang worked through targeted chemotherapy, opting to have procedures largely during the summer.
During the school year, students scrawled inspirational messages on the smart board in her classroom, such as “#prayforrina.”
Wolfgang’s cancer eventually went into remission, but it has come back repeatedly.
She has lived longer than some others with the condition.
“I said to my oncologist just last week, ‘How come I’m doing so well?’ ” Wolfgang said in October. “He said, ‘Well, I think it’s because you are doing something you love, and you have a positive attitude.’”
Her last Facebook post was on Jan. 8.
“In 2 days I am having my third cancer surgery,” she wrote. “I’m going into this knowing that God has a plan for me, and I am at peace with whatever happens.”