Bringing Fort Lee to life

Bringing Fort Lee to life

Rabbi Neil Winkler marched with the contingent from the Moriah School in the Celebrate Israel parade this month.

Rabbi Neil Winkler’s grandfather, like his son and grandson, was a builder.

Disabled by a missing leg, the result of a bombing strike over World War I London, he was not able to work, but his creativity, his passion for making something where there had been nothing, did not leave him. He was a carpenter, so he crafted a model of a synagogue. He hid metal tubes inside the wood, threaded wire through them, and screwed in tiny light bulbs, so his shul lit up.

His grandson also created a synagogue, although his is not a model but a full-size, living version.

Now, as Rabbi Winkler is about to retire from his pulpit at the Young Israel of Fort Lee, and from his position as teacher and coordinator of Tanach studies at the Moriah School in Englewood, he looks with satisfaction at the arc of a career that brings him and his wife, Andrea, to a new adventure as they plan their long-yearned-for aliyah to Israel.

Neil Winkler was born in the Bronx in 1948. His father, Kalman, was a founder of the shul across the street from where they lived – the Young Israel of Parkchester – and his mother, Helen, grew up on Long Island, in a family active in the Young Israel of North Bellmore. Kalman Winkler and Helen Rosenblum met at the Young Israel of Bronx Gardens. Synagogues in general – and Young Israel-affiliated synagogues in particular – were as essential as air in the Winklers’ household.

Rabbi Neil Winkler’s grandfather carved this etrog box.

His grandfather and grandmother lived with the family; his grandfather’s family had emigrated from Austria to London to Canada and then, finally, to the Bronx. Among Rabbi Winkler’s earliest memories is being asked to get Zeyde’s wooden leg from the closet.

Kalman Winkler, a craftsman like his own father, worked in fabric rather than wood. He was a pattern-maker and production manager at high-end clothing manufacturers, including B. H. Wragge, and he taught at the Fashion Institute of Technology. He would tell his children about working with Jackie Kennedy and with Lyndon Johnson’s daughters, who preferred not to shop in public.

All the Winkler children took the long trip south from the Bronx to Manhattan’s Upper East Side to go to elementary school at Ramaz. “My mother was very insistent that we all get a very strong education, both secular and Hebrew,” Rabbi Winkler said. “We would go by train; we’d take the IRT right down from 176th Street in Parkchester.” Between his siblings, his cousins, and other local children, a little tribe traveled back and forth together from school.

Because his father wanted him to have a “more intensive immersion in Jewish texts,” Rabbi Winkler transferred to MTA, Yeshiva University’s high school for boys, in eighth grade, and from there he went to Yeshiva College.

It was not until his third year that Neil Winkler realized that he wanted to be a rabbi. He majored in history, but “I realized that I wanted to serve people, and I felt that I might be able to do that as a rabbi. I have a passionate love of the Jewish nation, and I wanted to serve as best I could, and to work with people one on one.”

(It is notable that the word “passion” comes up frequently in a conversation with Rabbi Winkler, always to describe his work in the pulpit or at school. Talking about his work animates him.)

Rabbi Winkler graduated from Yeshiva College in 1969, and then earned both a masters in biblical studies at YU’s Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies and his ordination at its rabbinical school, the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, in 1972. Next came a year at the Golf Manor Synagogue in suburban Cincinnati and two years at Anshe Emet in Trenton, and then Rabbi Winkler and his growing family moved to Lawrenceville, where he founded that town’s Young Israel community.

In 1978, the Winklers moved to Fort Lee, where he took over the Fort Lee Synagogue. “Within a year I changed the name to the Young Israel of Fort Lee, and we joined the Young Israel movement,” Rabbi Winkler said. “We have been here ever since.”

Rabbi Winkler provides his shul with full service. Not only does he do the work that a rabbi always does – giving sermons; counseling congregants; teaching, both formally and informally; presiding over life-cycle events, and providing a role model for living a Jewish life – he also does all his community’s Torah and haftarah reading, and when a cantorial voice is necessary he provides that as well.

“A rabbi has to be a conductor,” Rabbi Winkler said. “He has to know how every instrument works, but mainly he has to put them together and have them harmonize.

“For 36 years, people here haven’t only had a conductor. They also have a one-man band.”

(Rabbi Winkler has some training as a singer, and one of his most moving memories is of having been in the choir, under the baton of Zubin Mehta, when Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was performed, for the first time, in Israel. The lyrics were sung in German. It was powerful, he recalls.)

About his family – Neil Winkler and Andrea Nierenberg met at Camp Massad, and they married in 1971. Andrea Winkler is the daughter of extraordinary parents. Her father, Dr. Harold Nirenberg, put himself through college after he got married, and then he went on to earn a Ph.D. He was the dean first of the law school and then of the business school at C. W. Post College. “And then he decided that he wanted to get back to the Jewish community, so he became dean of YU’s Sy Syms School of Business,” Rabbi Winkler said. “He revolutionized the school.” His wife, Laura, was an interior decorator.

Rabbi Winkler is clear about the fact that he could not have been the kind of rabbi he is if it were not for his wife. Some of her accomplishments are quantifiable. “She started a tehillim group” – where women come together every week to recite Psalms, as a way to heal the world’s wounds – “she is a founding member of Project S.A.R.A.H.” – a group that works with and for Jewish victims of domestic abuse – “she is an adviser and is intimately involved with the Fort Lee mikvah.” She organized the sisterhood, and she organized the first Purim fundraiser, which helped double the shul’s membership the first year the family arrived in Fort Lee. “She does everything a rebbitzin does – and what doesn’t a rebbitzin do?” her husband said.

“Aside from keeping the rabbi calm, she keeps an open house all the time. Every year we used to host the entire synagogue in our sukkah, and she baked everything – eight to ten cakes, seven different kugels, and chulent for everybody.”

“So much that she did I got the credit for,” he added. “Very few people realize how much she did for the shul. And then, of course, there were all those times when I couldn’t get home, and she took care of the kids. And she just sort of shrugs her shoulders and says, ‘That’s how it is.’

“She is really remarkable.”

There were many times when his wife had to host, at the absolute last minute, families who were stranded in Fort Lee, the victims of traffic or weather, as Shabbat was about to start.

But one of those Shabbat rescues could have happened only in Fort Lee. A Jewish man was trying to make it across the bridge, but he could not. Ice was falling from the tops of the towers. He was marooned until the Winklers swooped in for the save.

The Winklers have five children – Shira Ashendorf, Tsippi Cantor, and Malkie, Yehoshua, and Ely Winkler; three children-in-law, Michael Ashendorf, Michael Cantor, and Rachel Winkler, and nine grandchildren.

“Being part of a rabbinic family isn’t easy,” Rabbi Winkler said. Although other parts of Bergen County are bursting with the young children of observant families, Fort Lee isn’t now and wasn’t then. That was hard on his children, he said; although he tried to arrange for them to spend many Shabbatot at their friends’ houses, and encouraged them to invite their friends to stay with them as well, that was not the same as having a community of their peers within walking distance. Giving up that community was a sacrifice that his children made for him and for the Young Israel of Fort Lee, he said.

Just as Rabbi Winkler spent 36 years heading his shul, he also spent those same 36 years teaching at Moriah. He first began to teach when he was in Lawrenceville, because he needed to earn more money than the small congregation could afford to pay him. Very quickly, though, he learned that he loved teaching children.

“I love being around young people,” he said.

“I look back at thousands of students I have taught. Many of them are in the rabbinate or in Jewish education. It is more than satisfying.

“Over the years, I have been coach for the National Bible Contest,” he added. “I have been fortunate enough to have coached about 30 champions, who went to the national. About five years ago, the top two from the diaspora in the international contest in Israel were my students. Both were from Teaneck.”

Also about five years ago, Rabbi Winkler took a sabbatical; he used the time to write a book, “Bringing the Prophets to Life.” He is passionate about the book, as he is about everything he loves. “It never would have happened if I hadn’t gone into teaching,” he said. He taught the same subject – Tanach – every year, but instead of growing bored, he discovered new insights, new angles, new understandings, every time he taught it. “I see those new things because it is alive to me,” he said. “It gives me such joy.”

“If I ever could meet a biblical character, I would want it to be King David,” Rabbi Winkler said. “He was so real, so human, so touchable.”

Rabbi Winkler does not think that he will write another book; all the passion of his teaching was distilled into this one. He used a quotation from Kohelet – Ecclesiastes – in the preface to “Bringing the Prophets to Life.” Do not write an endless number of books, Kohelet 12:12 tells us. He will not, Rabbi Winkler says.

As he sits in Young Israel’s newly rebuilt synagogue, the ceiling arching high and white above the light-drenched room, Rabbi Winkler talks about the synagogue that he loves. He is leaving it as it is ready to transition to its next stage of life, he said; he is leaving it with love and hope.

“The past is meant to inspire and teach us,” he said. “It is not meant for us to wallow in.

“I am not retiring; I am not moving to Israel because it will be easier to bury me if I’m there already. I see a challenge ahead. Every year for the last 10 years we have spent in Israel, and it is very hard to come back.

“The only way to leave always is to look forward at what is facing us.”

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