A passion for prophets

A passion for prophets

Rabbi Neil Winkler hopes new book will inspire students

After teaching for 33 years at The Moriah School in Englewood, perhaps it was inevitable that Rabbi Neil Winkler would discover one of his new book’s proofreaders to be the wife of a former Moriah student.

“Bringing the Prophets to Life” (Gefen Publishers) was written mostly during Winkler’s 2009 sabbatical in Israel, but its heart is in his classroom. The book’s American launch party in September will take place at the school where the rabbi says he strives to instill kids with the same love of the Bible that energizes him.

The book intends to provide inspiration and insight into the writings of the early prophets from the books of Joshua to Kings, going beyond a simple translation of the text to identify the themes driving the narrative, as well as the struggles and challenges that faced the personalities presented.

Rabbi Neil Winkler with his new book. Courtesy Rabbi Winkler

One of his intended audiences is new teachers, he says. “I see educators filled with ideas and knowledge, but far more basic to successful teaching is not just to pass on information. You have to convey passion for what you’re teaching, so kids get more than just the words and stories. I try to explain approaches that would help them give students the feeling that these personalities were real.”

Winkler recalls that a parent once called him to say her child had been feeling agitated the night before as a result of what he had learned in class about the biblical David’s difficult life.

“I said, ‘Isn’t that wonderful? He relates to David as a real person; he’s emotionally tied to the story.’ That’s what is really crucial. If you understand the themes in the books, and how the stories the prophets put in the books lead to revealing that theme, then you will better understand the message they are trying to give.”

Winkler introduced his book in July at the Orthodox Union’s Israel Center in Jerusalem, where he did some of the writing and is teaching this summer. Also the rabbi of the Young Israel of Fort Lee, which will soon be housed in a new, larger structure, Winkler recalled that even when he was abroad in 2009 he continued teaching his eighth-grade Prophets class at Moriah via webcam.

Most adults rarely study this part of the biblical canon, he added, and there are few books in English about them for the lay community. His work is intended to fill that gap. “I believe it will give them insights they did not have before and encourage them to study more and help clarify things such as the idea of how the books are written,” said Winkler, who has coached many National Bible Contest winners over the years.

“The books of the prophets include specific stories chosen by the authors to drive home specific points for specific generations. I give an overview of each of the books to show how the overarching themes of conquest, dynasty, and sanctuary define these books.”

He freely gives credit to his own teachers for some of his insights, many of them based at Israel’s Herzog College in Alon Shvut. These master educators, including Rabbi Menachem Leibtag, stress thematic, structural, and linguistic aspects of biblical literature that Winkler says kids and adults alike find meaningful.

The Bible, says Winkler, “is not just a history book or collection of stories. God doesn’t need prophets to write history but to deliver a divine message, and that’s what you have to search for.”

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