Rabbi Avi Winokur is going to be 70 in August.
“Which is unbelievable,” he said, “but it’s true.”
Winokur, who is retiring after nearly 20 years as the senior rabbi of Society Hill Synagogue, is taking part in something else pretty unusual, too. His replacement, Rabbi Nathan Kamesar, 37, is the son of Rabbi Daniel Kamesar, Winokur’s close friend who died suddenly soon after graduating from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 1990.
Kamesar and Winokur had been close, but after the former’s death, the rest of his family moved away. It was only a few years ago, when SHS was looking for a rabbinic intern, that Winokur reconnected with the younger Kamesar. SHS hired Kamesar, then a student at the RRC, as a rabbinic intern.
Later, when it was clear that Winokur would be retiring soon, Kamesar was hired as an associate rabbi, a position that allowed him to develop familiarity with the congregation before being extended an offer to become the senior rabbi.
“For a million reasons,” Kamesar said of the transition, “this has been a meaningful experience for both him and me, and those roots are part of that.”
Kamesar will take over for Winokur on July 1. A retirement party planned for May has been postponed until December.
That’s not the only interesting aspect of the story of Winokur and Kamesar.
Winokur’s father, Abraham Winokur, was a student of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan. Though Winokur was raised in his father’s synagogue, Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades, California, his parents discouraged him from pursuing a career in the rabbinate. At first, they were successful in dissuading him; Winokur studied to become a lawyer and was still practicing law in San Francisco in his mid-30s. And yet, something called out to him.
“I knew I really wasn’t happy as an attorney. I could do it, I could make a living, but … everything about my life was perfect except I didn’t like what I was doing for work,” he said.
He moved across the country to study at RRC. It was during those years that he met his wife, Susan Berman, and the Kamesars, Daniel and Nathan. Soon after the elder Kamesar died, Winokur left to lead a synagogue in Connecticut. After just a few years there, he went to Manhattan, staying at the West End Synagogue for nine years.
In 2001, SHS was looking for a new rabbi. Terry Novick, who has been an SHS congregant for more than 40 years, said that the congregation population was older than it is now, and still had the same independent streak it displays today (it is unaffiliated with any movement). The previous rabbi, Ivan Caine, had been at the synagogue for decades. His approach was largely intellectual, asking congregants to wrestle with big ideas.
Winokur, according to Novick, retained the intellectualism of Caine, while adding a strong sense of social justice.
“Avi is in certain ways a good direct descendant of Ivan’s, even though they have very, very different styles,” she said.
The way Winokur explained it, the synagogue has become “a more celebratory place over time.” A congregation once used to listening to its cantor’s beautiful voice became one accustomed to singing along.
And over time, Winokur himself began to appreciate aspects of the rabbinate he’d never expected to: the personal, pastoral level of the job, talking to people who are suffering.
“The global community aspect never left my consciousness, but I just didn’t realize how much the personal part of it, relationships that you have with people pastorally, spiritually, even socially, was such a huge part of being a rabbi,” he said. “Even being a rabbi’s son, I didn’t know that.”
The congregation returned the favor: Winokur praised the community for how it embraced his son, Raphael, who suffers from several debilitating illnesses.
“If that had not happened, the whole experience wouldn’t work,” he said.
While Winokur was deepening his relationship with the congregation, yet another young man was across the country, practicing law in San Francisco, wondering if he wanted to do something different with his life.
Nathan Kamesar eventually realized that the answer was “yes” and, in 2014, while a student at the RRC, he made the connection with SHS and Winokur, to the delight of both men.
Kamesar said that Winokur “oozes grace and warmth and gentility and casualness”; Winokur said that Kamesar is “just a spectacular rabbi, and he’s just beginning.”
And as for SHS: “It’s in great shape for succession,” said Winokur.
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