August Wilhelm Wolbe was raised in an irreligious Jewish home and received his education at the University of Berlin (1930-1933). During his university studies he became a Baal teshuva through the efforts of the Orthodox Students Union V.A.D. (Verein Judische Academiker.) After university he attended the Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary (Rabbiner Seminar für das Orthodoxe Judenthum). He continued to study at Rabbi Botchko's yeshiva in Montreux, Switzerland. He then attended the Mir yeshiva in Poland, where he became a student of the Mashgiach Ruchani, Rabbi Yeruchom Levovitz, and, then of Rabbi Yechezkel Levenstein.
During World War II, Wolbe, who was a German national, could not follow the Mir yeshiva into Russia and spent the war years in neutral Sweden. While he was in Sweden, he functioned there as a rabbi. During the war he worked for the US-based Rescue Committee in coordination with Rabbi Benjamin Jakobson. At the end of the war he created a girls school for refugees in Lidingö. There, he wrote pamphlets on Judaism in Swedish and German.
He moved to Mandatory Palestine in 1946 and studied at Yeshivas Lomzha in Petah Tikva. He then married the daughter of Rabbi Avrohom Grodzenski, of the Slabodka yeshiva. Wolbe continued his studies at Kollel Toras Eretz Yisroel in Petach Tikva under Rabbi Yitzchok Katz. In 1948, Wolbe took over a small yeshiva belonging to a youth organization called Ezra. Two years later was joined by Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Shapirob of Brisk Be'er Yaakov Yeshiva. Shapiro became the Rosh Yeshiva and Wolbe became the Mashgiach Ruchani. For more than 30 years until 1981 Wolbe served as the menahel ruchani of Yeshivas Be'er Yaakov.
Later, he served as mashgiach in the Lakewood Yeshiva in Eretz Yisroel and he then opened Yeshivas Givat Shaul specializing in mussar. During these post 1981 years Wolbe gave mussar talks in various yeshivas and to small groups. He also created many "mussar houses." Prominent amongst his many students are Rabbi Uri Weisblaum and Rabbi Reuven Leuchter, both of whom have published works of Mussar as well as Rabbi Benjie Jacoby who continues to successfully outreach to North American university students, bringing them closer to Torah.
One of the Torah's dictums that Wolbe was most known in his advocacy of was his opposition to hitting children; this, in light of the longstanding misinterpretation of the biblical verse in Proverbs advising "spare the rod spoil the child."
Known for being a life-long reader of secular psychology and educational theory, Wolbe's greatness lies in his creating an educational philosophy that attempted to wean the Haredi community away from rote learning and a regimented approach to children. In his important work on education Zeriah u'Binyan beChinnuch ("Planting and Building in Education") he presents a Haredi adaptation and paraphrase of John Dewey’s Democracy and Education(1916), in which Dewey presented the tension of rote learning and a democratic individualism. For Wolbe, the educator needs to “build” the students on the firm ground of Torah, the community, and Haredi yeshiva values, yet at the same time allow the students to “grow,” each in their own personal and individual way.
Wolbe emphasized the great stress Torah places on the individuality of every child and every situation. In his discussion of prayer he states:
He published his first volume of Alei Shur in 1968, which contains his mussar ("ethics") talks on a proper regiments life of a yeshiva student. The second volume published 30 years after the first was an intense glimpse into his actual mussar workshops for developing elevated character traits. The book contains step by step instructions and specific exercises.
Wolbe believed that the student should not rely on habit or emotions, rather they should structure their lives. "The greater the person is, the more organized is his life." (Alei Shur, Pg. 68)
In Alei Shur volume 2:Mussar chapter 5, he presents the core of his method: The continuous need to better oneself in the everyday. He calls this better of deepening Hislamdus ("teaching oneself"), a non-ego learning from things. Wolbe's method will slowly train one to contemplate nature, one’s surroundings, political events, and one’s home life:
Wolbe felt that there are four basic areas aside from the regular Gemara curriculum of the yeshiva that the yeshiva student should master.
His work Ben sheshet le-Asor ("Between [the] Sixth [of] to [the] Tenth [of]") offers his views on the meaning of Jewish politics and changes to Jewish life resulting from the Six-day War until the Yom Kippur War.
In this book he takes issue with the position in the Agudah newspaper Hamodia, that the state of Israel is a vessel for leading a Haredi life. Rather, he affirms that the Haredi community is a continuation of the religious Old Yishuv. The state of Israel did not contribute to Haredi life, and the state is entirely heretical and even Israel Independence day should not be recognized. The state gets no credit for providing any Jewish culture since Biblical studies, archeology, and Jewish history are entirely secular.
He stated that he agrees with the anti-Zionism of the late Satmar Rebbe, but thinks that it is still permissible to enter the government and to receive money from it.