When Camille Bloomberg’s 43-year-old husband died suddenly 10 years ago, Rabbi Eric Wisnia of Congregation Beth Chaim in Princeton Junction was there to help relay the terrible news to her children, then 16, 12, and 11.
“He sat there with all three of my children,” said Bloomberg, “and explained how much their Daddy loved them and would be missed by them and how much it’s OK to be crying and upset — this is grief and how you express yourself.”
Wisnia was also there for South Brunswick resident Richard Stoller and his family, one of Beth Chaim’s original members, when his wife died at age 53 of cancer when their kids were teenagers. Stoller said said both children “relied very heavily on Rabbi Wisnia as someone they could talk to…. He gave them a positive vision of their mother and the ability to keep her in their memory.”
Such expressions of appreciation for Wisnia from Beth Chaim members NJJN spoke with were abundant as he prepares to step down from the pulpit; his last day is Jan. 19. Congregants said they will miss the sensitivity, empathy, and guidance that Wisnia brought to his synagogue for the past 42 years.
Wisnia has prepared his congregation for the transition, said Anne Berman-Waldorf, Beth Chaim’s director of lifelong education. “He has given us the courage to dream about what happens next,” she said. “In his sermons on the High Holy Days, he talked about how his greatest gift will be the continuity of Judaism here in Mercer County.”
Fulfilling those dreams will be accomplished on the strong foundation that Wisnia developed over the last four decades. When he arrived, in June 1977, the synagogue had 160 families and 160 religious school students; there was no program for religious education after bar mitzvah. Today 600 families are members, and the religious school, which now goes from preschool to 12th grade, has 500 students.
On his watch, the physical structure of the synagogue was rebuilt and expanded twice. A social action program was established, and a cantor and a volunteer congregant choir were added to enhance the worship experience.
Under his leadership, changes adopted by Reform Judaism were enacted at Beth Chaim. The congregation, he said, became “gender sensitive,” and when women were accepted as rabbis, female clergy members were brought in. He instituted many initiatives, organized and taught in the community conversion program, and taught “many, many classes,” including his popular Sunday morning adult Bible class.
A Reform leader, Wisnia was on the committee of Camp Harlam, the movement’s summer camp in the Poconos, and for several years was president of the New Jersey Association of Reform Rabbis.
His leadership has extended beyond his synagogue and movement. Among his many roles, he served as president of the Mercer County Board of Rabbis, president and long-time member of the Chaplaincy Committee of the Medical Center at Princeton, a national board member of the National Brain Tumor Society in Boston, and chair of the board of directors of the Family Service Agency of Princeton. He currently serves on the Jewish Committee on Scouting for the Central NJ Council of Boy Scouts of America.
Members NJJN spoke with extolled Wisnia’s legacy at Beth Chaim.
“He is just a mentor to anyone who works with him and is very generous of himself,” said Donald Leibowitz of West Windsor, Beth Chaim’s president from 1996 to 1997. “He has an amazing ability to connect with people and establish relationships.”
Several members pointed to Wisnia’s commitment to inclusion as he connected with the broader community, including his support for the establishment of the Muslim Center of Greater Princeton, a mosque in West Windsor.
The fact that leaders of other local religious communities showed up after the Oct. 27 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting to support Beth Chaim congregants was “a reflection of all the work he’s done over the years to value everyone in the community and speak up for the right things,” said Sharon Hoffman-Manning, Beth Chaim president from 2013 to 2016.
For Berman-Waldorf, Wisnia “demonstrates, lives, and teaches a Judaism that is full of joy and has room for all people — and that Judaism is evolving. He’s very clear on his connection to this ancient tradition, yet he’s able to create a space for people to travel their own Jewish journeys.”
For Adena Blum, associate rabbi at Beth Chaim, Wisnia was a nurturing colleague. “From the very beginning he gave me room to grow and learn and get my rabbi sea legs.” He also taught her about the importance of humor, which, she said, “can bring people together in a powerful way, alleviate tension, and keep us as rabbis grounded.”
“In most synagogues, a percentage of the congregation loves the rabbi and a percentage don’t,” Stoller said. “That has never been the case at Beth Chaim. I would venture that 99 percent of our congregation love Eric Wisnia.”
That love was on display at several events honoring Wisnia over the last three months, including a big ‘gala’ fund-raiser in early November; more festivities are planned for his last official weekend Jan. 25-27.
The search has begun for a new religious leader, who will take over from Rabbi Brian Beal when he finishes his service as interim rabbi in June 2020. But Wisnia isn’t going away for long. He has been designated rabbi emeritus at Beth Chaim and will be available for congregational work, including continuing to teach classes.
He will, he said, “do whatever the new rabbi needs. I will be like an extra assistant rabbi.”