Kinneret Chiel

March 4, 2022


Kinneret Chiel may be listed in historical accounts as the wife of Rabbi Arthur Chiel but she is much more than what the 1950s called the “better half” of Rabbi Arthur Chiel, Hillel Director at the University of Manitoba and founding Rabbi of Congregation Rosh Pina. Mrs. Chiel’s own activities and lively personality reveal much about Winnipeg. Born in Poland in 1926, she immigrated to Winnipeg with her family in 1929.  Her father, Samuel Dirnfeld, came from a rabbinical family and sang as cantor at the Rosh Pina Synagogue on Henry and Martha Streets as well as other Orthodox shuls in Winnipeg, Winnipeg Beach, and Saskatoon. He earned a living with his Dirnfeld Novelty Company that manufactured small leather goods such as purses, belts, key cases, and even bowling shoes. Kinneret’s mother, Bat’sheva, called “Sheva” by her family, helped run the business and was a member of the Pioneer Women, a Labour Zionist group. She also sang in the choir of her son-in-law’s Rosh Pina Synagogue on Matheson Avenue. Bat’sheva was noted for her independent spirit.

Kinneret Dirnfeld adopted her first name at Talmud Torah when she needed a Hebrew name to claim a scholarship that she had won. She liked the name and kept it. After completing high school at St. John’s Tech, she attended New York University. While in New York, Kinneret met her future husband, Rabbi Arthur Chiel, and the two visited Winnipeg several times before moving here in 1949. Always active, Kinneret took advantage of opportunities as they arose. When the leading lady of the Hillel Society fundraiser had to withdraw, Kinneret stepped in and played Betty in Sholem Aleichem’s play, “It’s Hard to be a Jew.” B’nai Brith invited her to present a survey of Jewish music with recorded illustrations and she took part in a panel on “Personal Views of Judaism” organized by the Pioneer Women.  When her husband wanted a choir at the new Rosh Pina Synagogue, Kinneret not only sang but arranged for her friend, Sara Udow, to direct the choir. The two women collaborated in a creating a playlet for a Child Rescue fundraiser of the Pioneer Women in which Kinneret wrote sketches of orphaned immigrants to Israel and Sara Udow illustrated them with Yiddish and Hebrew songs. They also collaborated on the cantata, “What is Torah,” by the pioneer female composer, Judith Kaplan Eisenstein.  She was the featured speaker at another Child Rescue fundraising luncheon shortly after returning from a trip to Morocco.  

Kinneret liked to write and she published newspaper articles about trips with her husband to Morocco, Israel, and other destinations in the 1940s and 1950s. Growing up in a Yiddish-speaking home, she was well-qualified to serve as theWinnipeg Free Press reviewer for a new translation of “The Dybbuk” in which she praised the introduction but criticized the translation as failing to give a sense of the Yiddish language. Her major achievement, however, came shortly after leaving Winnipeg when she published The Complete Book of Chanukah, a collection of biblical accounts and other stories as well as customs, songs, and games for young people. The illustrator was the young Arnold Lobel, later to become one of the few winners of both the Caldecott Medal and Newberry Prize awarded by the American Library Association for children’s books. Kinneret’s book was reissued in 1977 under the title, Hanukah Legends and Oddities.

Kinneret and Arthur Chiel left Winnipeg in 1957 with their four children for New York and Connecticut. As the children grew up, Kinneret took graduate degrees in education and English literature. She worked as the principal of Jewish schools and taught at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven Connecticut where she also directed its Child Development Centre. Keeping her ties to Winnipeg, Kinneret visited her parents and friends, and spoke here from time to time, notably at the dedication of the Rosh Pina Bima and Ark in 1984, a year after Rabbi Chiel passed away. She remains close to friends she made here, many of whom, like herself, have moved elsewhere.

In retirement, Kinneret Chiel continues active and strong at 95 years of age. She takes part in a book discussion group at Congregation B’nai Jacob in Connecticut and attends adult education classes on weekly Torah portions, Talmud, mysticism, and Jewish philosophers. She also steps outside the synagogue to study Dante’s Inferno in a local adult education institute.