Remembering Bernie Weinflash

Remembering Bernie Weinflash

Community mourns visionary leader and founding patron of Shirah chorus

Bernie Weinflash loved music and song, especially Yiddish and Hebrew melodies expressing his religion and culture.

Some people are irreplaceable, said Matthew (Mati) Lazar, founding director and conductor of Shirah, the Community Chorus at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly.

“Bernie Weinflash was one of them.”

Mr. Weinflash, founding patron of the choral group now celebrating its 21st year, died on November 9 at 94.

Mr. Weinflash was born on the Lower East Side and was a veteran of World War II. Trained as an accountant and lawyer, he was a stockbroker for Oppenheimer and Co.

Shirah was one of Mr Weinflash’s proudest achievements. In a video of his talk at the choral concert that marked his 90th birthday – “Bernie always spoke at our concerts,” Mr. Lazar said – the founder mused that “by creating Shirah, I will have helped perpetuate Jewish survival.”

That accurately represented how important the choir was to him.

In a 2012 interview, Mr. Weinflash, who had moved to Fort Lee after living in Cresskill for many years, told the Jewish Standard that on his father’s 20th yahrzeit, he wanted to find an appropriate way to memorialize him. He and his late wife, Ruth – to whom Shirah’s 18th anniversary concert was dedicated – decided that since his father had loved both Jewish music and Hebrew liturgy, the most appropriate way to honor him would be through song.

“Actually, I was just looking for an excuse to do it,” joked Mr. Weinflash, who told the Standard at the time that he approached the leadership of the Kaplen JCC in 1994 with his idea for a Jewish choir. “A culture without music will not last,” he said.

The interview goes on:

“Peppering his remarks with snatches of Yiddish melodies and lyrics, the soon-to-be-92-year-old music lover said he grew up in a household filled with song. His late brother, who later became a cantor, played the piano.

“‘We sang all the songs,’ he said, joyfully tossing off lyrics from a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. ‘I wanted to be instrumental in maintaining Jewish tradition through song.'”

“You’ve got to walk along and sing,” Mr. Weinflash continued in the story, paraphrasing words he heard from his own mother. “I thought that even the short stories of Sholem Aleichem might not survive,” but Jewish melody, he believed, had a better chance of perpetuating Jewish tradition. “I’m following Sholem Aleichem’s direction,” he said, pointing out that the author had written an ethical will. “I want to leave the continuity of Jewish music.”

“I loved him,” said the JCC’s executive director, Avi Lewinson, who enjoyed a close relationship with Ruth and Bernie Weinflash for more than 25 years. “He was a dear friend. I sat next to him on the High Holidays” at Temple Emanu-El in Closter.

A member of the JCC board of directors, “Bernie really resonated for me,” Mr. Lewinson continued. “He was deeply committed and passionate about the Jewish community, about yiddishkeit, about Am Yisrael, about Israel. He was a kind, gentle, loving, caring human being. He was always supportive of the JCC and of me personally.” And not only did Bernie and Ruth Weinflash support the JCC financially, “but they literally volunteered, putting in their time, especially for Jewish culture and education.”

Mr. Lewinson described Shirah as “a shidduch that really worked.” And indeed, the choral group came about through a kind of matchmaking.

Mr. Lazar said that Mr. Lewinson recognized “the confluence of interest and ability.” According to him, Bernie and Ruth Weinflash had the idea, he had the ability, and Mr. Lewinson had the location. Born of a shared desire to offer Jewish choral music at the Kaplen JCC, Shirah found a ready home at the facility’s Thurnauer Music School.

But Mr. Weinflash did more than create Shirah, Mr. Lewinson said. “He endowed a writing course, supported so many things in the school of performing arts, the music school – he was never short of ideas.”

“Bernie was a visionary – one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met,” said Mr. Lewinson, clearly amazed at the number of books Mr. Weinflash had read and could quote from. “He had an amazing, phenomenal mind.”

That sentiment was echoed by Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner, religious leader of Closter’s Temple Emanu-El, where Mr. Weinflash’s funeral took place on Tuesday.

“Bernie was brilliant – speaking multiple languages and reading philosophy in his spare time,” Rabbi Kirshner said. Mr. Weinflash had belonged to the shul for about 50 years and had served on the synagogue’s board of directors, he added. “He attended weekly, even until a few weeks ago. He loved chazzanut and appreciated music in the service. Additionally, he was an ardent Zionist and was elated by speakers who talked about Israel and made it a focal point,” Rabbi Kirshner said.

Moreover, “He led the High Holiday Shacharit services at the temple for many years, always had a word of good cheer, and was consistently churning out ideas for programming and the cultivation of members at the temple, even as recently as last month.”

“I am proud to have called him my friend,” Rabbi Kirshner summed up. “He will be missed sorely.”

Mr. Lewinson said that every time Mr. Weinflash would call – and they spoke regularly – he had “amazing enthusiasm and ideas for programs. He was an amazing leader; and his dedication to the continuity of Jewish culture and learning was inspiring. This is a personal loss – he was a valued mentor.”

Remembering Ruth Weinflash, Bernie’s wife of 55 years, Mr. Lewinson said that “together they were unstoppable. They adored each other, and they passed their love of Jewish learning to their children, who are very involved with Jewish organizations in their own communities.”

Mr. Lazar said that Mr. Weinflash loved music.

“He loved to sing, especially Yiddish songs,” he said. “And as a strong Zionist, he loved Hebrew songs as well. He really understood how a choir can be the paradigm of community. It resolves the tension between the individual and the group and allows certain people’s strong suits to make up for other people’s weak suits.” Also, since it’s usually accompanied by text, “it’s how we learn about the culture, history, and life of the Jewish people.”

He and his wife were “lucky enough to have quality time with Bernie and Ruth, a magnificent woman, a magnificent couple,” Mr. Lazar said. And Carol Kopelman, the Weinflash’s youngest daughter, sang with Shirah in its beginning years, he added.

“Bernie and Ruth never missed a concert,” he said. “They were our biggest fans, our champions. Bernie was a multidimensional human being who was extremely knowledgeable and yet extremely reasonable. He knew how to listen, and how to talk.”

Mr. Weinflash, he said, never lost his inner drive or intellectual capacity.

“He was someone to emulate. A highly unusual individual, passionate and reasonable.”

Mr. Weinflash also sat on the board of the Jewish Book Council and he was a past president of the American Jewish Committee of Northern New Jersey. He was the father of three children – Jody Konstadt, Jeff Weinflash, and Carol Kopelman – and the grandfather of seven grandchildren. He also is survived by two brothers, Nathan and Irving.

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