A conversation with Arthur Wartenberg

A conversation with Arthur Wartenberg

FAIR LAWN – Arthur Wartenberg turns 74 this month, but he’s not slowing down.

On the contrary, Wartenberg is just warming up. Retired from the wholesale toy business, he has dipped into the chocolate business. And he’s taken on new roles at the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Cong. B’nai Israel, his longtime home away from home.

Raised in a traditional household in Brooklyn, Wartenberg said, "Like most of my peers at the time, religious observance took a back seat in my life until I was engaged to be married at age ”. At that time my future father-in-law presented me with a siddur, tefillin, and tallit and re-taught me the rituals of their use. From then until the present, I haven’t missed a day!"

However, until fairly recently he couldn’t bring himself to repeat his bar mitzvah experience of reading the haftarah — the selection from Prophets that follows the Torah portion every Shabbat.

It wasn’t until he was 65 that he gathered the courage to try. "At first, I filled in the breach whenever I was needed. Now I can basically read it on a moment’s notice," he said. And he did not stop there. "About four years ago I bought myself some software — Trope Trainer — and under the guidance of Rabbi [Henry] Glazer and Cantor [Eric] Wasser I learned to read Torah and now do so about twice a month at Shabbat services. Not only has this activity brought me fulfillment and satisfaction, but I am told it has been an inspiration to others to emulate my efforts."

Glazer, now retired, said Wartenberg "devoted an enormous amount of time and energy and effort. He was so dedicated."

The Jewish Center has been central to the lives of Wartenberg and his wife of nearly 50 years, Ziona, since about two years after they moved to the borough with their baby daughter, Laurie, in 1960. Laurie and her younger siblings, David and Heidi, all attended Hebrew school and celebrated their b’nai mitzvah there.

"We became very active in center life — particularly the youth activities, athletic activities, and adult education," said Wartenberg.

The couple and several friends from the synagogue formed Chavurah Aleph, a fellowship group now in its 36th year. Arthur Wartenberg has served on the synagogue’s board of directors and religious affairs committee. Still, there was a time when he’d had enough.

"After ‘5 years, there was some political turmoil there, and also the demographics of Fair Lawn started to change, and I went for short stint to one of the Orthodox congregations," he said. "But I felt like a fish out of water somehow. So a year and a half later I decided to go back to the Jewish Center and promised myself not to get involved in the politics. I did get involved, but I found my place here. I’m here and I’m satisfied."

It was about three decades ago that he took on the responsibility of instituting morning weekday services at the synagogue and he went on to lead parts of those services, too. These days, he’s a Monday regular.

Why only one day? That’s his one concession to growing older.

"I lay tefillin every [weekday] morning," he said, "but at this stage of my life I find it hard to rise to the occasion of going every day. When I can attend minyan in the evening I do that as well. But every Shabbat and holiday I’m in shul."

Though the center now has fewer members than in its heyday, Wartenberg is guardedly optimistic about its future.

"We were bolstered by the merger [with Cong. B’nai Israel in ‘006] and hopefully will attract a younger community," he said.

Glazer recalled that he used to ask Wartenberg to donate toys for the children on Simchat Torah and Purim. "He always made them available," Glazer said. "He never let me down."

Now, however, Wartenberg has moved on to an even sweeter pursuit.

"As I was contemplating my final retirement from the toy business, my daughter Heidi made me an offer I could not refuse," he said. Trained at the Ecole Chocolat in Vancouver, his daughter lured him into a new venture called Heidi & Arthur Chocolatiers (heidiandarthurs.com). Based at a small factory in Valley Cottage, N.Y., the company "makes gourmet chocolate to die for," he said.

He gladly shares the Star-K kosher-certified treats with his shul buddies. "I bring them to board meetings. I have found my weakness," he joked.

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