‘Visionary’ rabbi retires from Anshe Emeth after 44 years

‘Visionary’ rabbi retires from Anshe Emeth after 44 years

Rabbi Bennett Miller grateful for chance to ‘create sacred community’

When asked to describe Rabbi Bennett Miller of Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple (AEMT), many who have known him well called him “a visionary” and a religious leader who teaches by example how to live a life of Jewish values.

Miller, who wrapped up a 44-year tenure as senior rabbi at the New Brunswick Reform synagogue on June 9 — although he officially remains in the position until the end of the month — leaves a thriving congregation deeply involved with the Jewish and general communities, staunchly supportive of Israel, and committed to Jewish learning.

“Rabbi Miller is an institution,” said Keith Krivitzky, CEO of the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey. “He has done so much for our Jewish community here, for the community around New Brunswick, and for the Jewish people. He has helped Anshe Emeth show what a vibrant modern synagogue can be, and he keeps finding new ways to emphasize the relevance and importance of core Jewish values.”

Taking over for Miller on July 1 will be Rabbi Philip Bazeley, the congregation’s assistant religious leader for the last six years, whose position will be filled by Rabbi Maya Glasser. Miller has been named rabbi emeritus, the first in the synagogue’s 159-year history to have been granted such an honor.

Bazeley extolled the model set for him by Miller. “It has been a wonderful journey for me,” Bazeley told NJJN. “We have developed a very close friendship, and he has been a wonderful mentor who has taught me what it really means to be a rabbi.” 

Beyond the text and Torah studies at the seminary, said Bazeley, what Miller has taught him “is really the heart of what it means to be a rabbi.”

Miller told NJJN in a phone interview that one of the accomplishments he is most proud of can be found on any given Saturday morning at AEMT, when the 500-plus-family congregation is abuzz with activity.

“At most synagogues on Shabbat morning, you have services and maybe a single Torah study class,” he said. “At Anshe Emeth we have a
different philosophy,” offering multiple platforms for learning and prayer.

When Sunday religious school classes for grades pre-kindergarten to sixth grade were moved to Saturday morning, parents were able to take advantage of up to five simultaneous adult learning programs taking place while the children study.

“On a Shabbat morning, even when there isn’t a bar or bat mitzvah, we often have several hundred people here,” said Miller. 

A highlight of his tenure, he said, has been encouraging more than 100 teens from the congregation to attend the semester program at Union for Reform Judaism’s Isaac and Helaine Heller EIE High School in Israel, more than any other Reform congregation in North America.

“I drive the teens nuts until they say yes,” Miller said with a laugh. “Then they discover what a transformative experience it is for them.”

For longtime members, the rabbi’s innovations, commitment, and compassion have been the hallmarks that have made him such a valued religious leader.

Seven people who grew up at Anshe Emeth during Miller’s tenure became rabbis, inspired, they have said, by him. Miller’s own daughters followed him into service to the Jewish community; Carrie Miller Nussbaum is a vice president of Jewish Family Service of MetroWest NJ, and Rabbi Ellie Miller is religious leader at Temple B’nai Or in Morristown. 

He is also admired for the assistance he gives to congregants facing challenges. “In a time of crisis or stress, Bennett makes you feel safe,” said Lee Livingston, a former AEMT president who has known Miller since he arrived as a young rabbi. “When you’re facing a family tragedy, or a friend is in the hospital, or someone has passed away, he makes you feel like you’re the only person in the room that matters.”

AEMT president Daryl Lipkin of East Brunswick, a 20-year member, called Miller “a visionary” who has a “personal connection to everyone” and is a “driving force who’s always willing to get things done that haven’t been done before.”

It was that drive that was responsible for the establishment of the synagogue’s Gan Yeladeem Learning Center-The David H. Meyer Children’s Center, for infants to youngsters age 5, and its Joshua Project, through which future temple leaders learn about the temple’s administration and opportunities for growth and development, said Lipkin.

Miller has not only guided the synagogue in religious matters, but has set the tone for reaching out to the most vulnerable. “A lot of people use the phrase ‘tikkun olam’ — repairing the world — but he challenged us to go beyond saying it,” said Livingston, an East Brunswick resident. “He challenged us to see that social justice is not a goal in itself, but rather adds to a meaningful Jewish life.”

During Miller’s four-plus decades at AEMT, membership has grown, but, at his urging, the synagogue has not moved to the nearby suburbs as the Jewish population has shifted. Instead, leaders chose to cement ties to the city in which the temple was established in 1859. Under the rabbi’s guidance, the congregation has developed programs to provide shelter for the homeless and recruit volunteers to mentor children in city schools. 

The nonprofit Anshe Emeth Community Development Corporation was established to lend free medical equipment, car seats, and baby furniture to Middlesex County’s low-income families. It donates formula and other essentials to poor mothers and operates central New Jersey’s only “diaper bank,” which now dispenses 60,000 disposable diapers annually.

“I’ve been blessed to be part of a congregation that has encouraged me to dream about creating a sacred community, and they’ve allowed me to carry out and live those dreams with them,” said Miller. “As a result, we have a very special congregation full of learning and Torah study for all ages. We have a community performing acts of loving-kindness and tzedakah.”

Miller’s efforts have included forging links to others on a national, state, and local level. His national posts include serving as chair of the rabbinic cabinet of what is now Jewish Federations of North America, and he is immediate past national chair of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America. He is on the board of the Jewish Agency for Israel and is chair of the Doctor of Ministry Advisory Committee at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where he also serves as instructor in pastoral theory and as a member of the clinical faculty.

Miller is past president of the Coalition of Religious Leaders of New Jersey, chaired the Faith-Based Organizations Task Force on Work First New Jersey, and served as a founding member of the New Jersey State Advisory Council on Holocaust Education.

His many leadership posts in the local community include founding chair of the clinical pastoral education department at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, a position he still holds. He is the Jewish chaplain to the New Brunswick Police Department, has served on the board of the Elijah’s Promise soup kitchen in New Brunswick, and was a longtime board member at Rutgers Hillel. 

Miller additionally served many years on the board of the former Jewish Federation of Greater of Middlesex County, now the Jewish Federation in the Heart of NJ, where he is a member of its Leadership Council. In 2010, already a life member of the Middlesex federation board, Miller received the rare honor of being named a life trustee of that federation.

His biography “tells you his accomplishments and the things he’s done,” said Livingston, “but it doesn’t really tell you who Bennett Miller is. It doesn’t tell you how he taught us our traditions and showed us how to live those teachings and traditions. He taught us how to take those values into the community and be proud of who we are. He felt very comfortable articulating Jewish values at Sukkot celebrations, to which he invited a cross-section of the community. 

“Even with changing demographics,” said Livingston, “we’re still here and still attracting new members. Rabbi Miller has helped us continue our legacy, and we’re confident Rabbi Bazeley will continue it.”

Miller, a Monroe resident, will be heading to Israel to study at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, as he has done alternate summers since 2000. After his return to New Jersey, he said, he will be devoting lots of time to his wife, Joan, and their daughters and sons-in-law and six grandchildren, and to Miller’s mother, who has moved from his native Rochester, N.Y., to an assisted-living community in Monroe. After a year, Miller will return to active leadership involvement in Anshe Emeth. 

Hundreds of congregants attended a Shabbat dinner and Miller’s final Friday evening service as senior rabbi on June 8 and a gala the next evening at the Marigold in Somerset. After a festive bagel brunch the next morning, hundreds of congregants assembled on the long descending steps of the synagogue for a final photo with Miller — surrounded by shofar blowers sending him off with a final blast.

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