West Windsor was a very different community when 27-year-old Rabbi Eric Wisnia arrived at Congregation Beth Chaim in 1977.
The town was about 25 percent Jewish and 15 percent Asian. The rest were farmers, he says. There were no traffic lights, and the Jews who were here were a group of 30-somethings, most of them transplants from Brooklyn.
Wisnia, who lives in Yardley, Pennsylvania, is celebrating his 40th year with the synagogue this year. He’s still here, but almost everything else has changed in town—including the size of the Jewish community. It’s smaller.
Wisnia’s four decades leading worship at Beth Chaim give a unique perspective on West Windsor. “The farmers are all gone, now the Jews are the old people, and the Asian community is all brand new,” he says.
When Wisnia came to Beth Chaim, just five years after it was founded, it had 160 families and 160 students in its school. What this one-to-one ratio of families to students translated to, he says, was a “young, crazy synagogue.”
“People were looking to form a community and make friends,” he recalls. “Nobody was from here, and the temple became a social center.”
No longer is Beth Chaim just a community of young exiles from New York. There are a lot more people from all over the country, and there is much more diversity and difference in age, he says. Half of the families do not have children in the religious school, and Beth Chaim has more senior citizens. With these changes has come a greater focus on the outside community and more social action. For the last two months Beth Chaim has invited its Muslim neighbors to a coffee and conversation program at the synagogue.
“Our country is no longer white bread, and we have to begin to deal with that and accept it,” Wisnia says.
Wisnia says that he likes the diversity. He says that the Asians have given excitement to the community. “They are young and new and new Americans, and bursting with talent and trying to create a community with all kinds of social institutions and build churches, mosques and temples,” he says.
He is not just being politically correct. In 2011, when the Institute of Islamic Studies was seeking a variance from the zoning board to build in an empty space on Old Trenton Road adjacent to a 55-plus community, Wisnia jumped to the mosque’s defense.
He noted that the mosque’s neighbors-to-be had no problem when the property was zoned for a 24-hour-a-day health club, but it became a major problem for them as soon as a Muslim house of worship was proposed for the site.
“I was appalled that members of my community were so blatant in their bigotry,” Wisnia said.
His instinctive activism in support of the mosque meshes perfectly with the lessons he learned as the child of a Holocaust survivor. He cites a line from the Passover seder: “My father was a wandering Aramean who came out of Babylon and went into Egypt, and the Egyptians dealt ill with us… and God brought us out with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.”
“And therefore, I should appreciate what I have,” Wisnia says. “When I think of that, I think of my daddy: he was a wandering Pollak, thrown into Auschwitz, and God brought my father out, he joined up with the 101st Airborne, and they brought him into America, a land flowing with milk and honey.
“My job is to enjoy it and see that no one else is enslaved or suffers bigotry or oppression ever again—that’s my heritage as a Jew and as a Wisnia,” he says.
Anne Berman-Waldorf, director of lifelong education and congregant at Beth Chaim, has been impressed by Wisnia’s commitment to diversity.
“As a religious leader, he wants to be in a town that welcomes all religious communities,” she says. “I think when the rabbi sees a border being closed or hate in the community, he thinks perhaps that in the late 1930s if America had been more welcoming to his family, perhaps his father would not have been one of few survivors in his family.”
Wisnia says that when he spoke before the zoning board in favor of the mosque, “The Muslims in the Islamic center were shocked that a rabbi would be so friendly and outgoing to them and help them. I told them, ‘We are all brothers and sisters and when any of our rights are diminished all of our rights are diminished.’” In December 2014, the mosque gave him a community leadership award.
Wisnia says Beth Chaim is more traditional than your average Reform synagogue because so many of its members come from New York. His assistant rabbi, Adena Blum, who grew up in Lawrenceville, is bringing new ideas and changes that he welcomes.
One recent change where Blum was instrumental is a new prayerbook with less English, more Hebrew, and readings that are more gender neutral, for example, referring to God in the second person, “directly, rather than as he, she or it,” Wisnia says.
Expressing his own take on Reform Judaism’s view of Jewish law and traditions, Wisnia says, “Reform Judaism says we take the Bible seriously, we don’t take it literally; therefore you have to understand what you’re doing and why you are doing it. All rituals are up for discussion, and you do those that are meaningful.”
Take the animal sacrifices, which play a large role in biblical Judaism. He finds them to be “a gooky, disgusting mess.”
“You can’t convince me that is what God demands,” Wisnia says.
Instead he will ask his congregants what they do sacrifice. “If you tell me you will do the service of my heart, of my lips, and put my money and my labor where my mouth is, that’s good enough,” he says.
Wisnia has served many times as president of the Windsor-Hightstown Area Ministerium, where the community’s clergy meet to deal with issues of community interest and plan social action projects, like feeding the homeless at the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen and Homefront and participating in a CROP walk with the Church World Service to help in the fight against worldwide hunger.
They also hold community services on Martin Luther King Day and Thanksgiving. “Our goal is so people throughout all religious communities know one another and will realize we are all friends and are all neighbors—there are no strangers here,” Wisnia says.
“Whenever he is present, he opens it up to humor,” says Rev. Patrick J. McDonnell at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Hightstown, a fellow Ministerium member.
Emphasizing Wisnia’s friendliness and warmth, he says, “He enjoys people, no matter who they are.” And if someone needs to talk, Wisnia is always there. “He’ll give you all the time you want,” McDonnell says.
Wisnia was born in Brooklyn in 1949, moved to Mt. Airy, Pennsylvania in 1950, then in 1952 to a home in the brand-new Levittown suburb, where his parents still live.
“It was the American dream—a suburban synagogue, a suburban town—it was ideal, and I grew up safe and secure,” Wisnia says. His father, David, was volunteer cantor at the community’s new Reform synagogue.
On his father’s side, Wisnia’s family in Poland was “progressive and modern,” he says. The day after David Wisnia had his bar mitzvah on August 31, 1939 in the Warsaw Ghetto, the Nazis invaded Poland. David Wisnia escaped the ghetto, but ended up in the Auschwitz concentration camp for two years, starting in January 1942.
“The way he survived was that he entertained the guards, and they would flip him extra food and make sure he was not shot because he entertained them,” Wisnia says.
In January 1944, as the Russian Army was approaching Auschwitz, David Wisnia was moved to a work camp. As the train he was on was strafed, he escaped and was picked up by Capt. Walker of the 586th paratroop regiment of the 101st Airborne.
Realizing that Wisnia spoke 10 languages, the captain took him on as an interpreter. “He took a Jewish Polish prisoner and made him an American soldier,” Wisnia says.
“My father is a great man and a good role model and was always giving back to his community,” Wisnia says. “He loves America and feels that America saved him and gave him a life, and he taught us that as well.”
‘Soon a young rabbi may be at the helm, and I will be the old geezer sitting in the back to help. This is my community.’
Wisnia’s rabbi in Levittown, Herbert Hendel, said to Wisnia at age 13, “Eric, why don’t you be a rabbi.” Wisnia said yes. And that was that.
“He singled me out to be his successor and his surrogate son,” Wisnia says. “He sent me to rabbinical school—you had to be sponsored.” Hendel also told Wisnia to go to the University of Pennsylvania and major in religion, which he did after graduating from Neshaminy High School in 1967.
Wisnia then went to the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati right after college. The first year, 1970-71, was at the school’s Jerusalem branch.
“It had a profound effect,” he says. “I became an ardent Zionist and lover of the Jewish state. I had been before but at that point I knew what I was talking about.”
His first rabbinical position was in Toledo, then he was ready for his own synagogue in New Jersey. Hendel, who died before Wisnia started rabbinical school, remains his role model.
Wisnia’s oldest child is Sara Wisnia, an accountant, who married Matt Schiffer, a Beth Chaim congregant for his whole life and now a golf course architect. Wisnia’s son Avi is a singer and songwriter and lives in Philadelphia. His son Dov died in 2012 of a brain tumor. When Dov died, Wisnia says, “My synagogue rallied. They’re here for me; I’m here for them. It is a wonderful thing to have a community.”
For Anne Berman-Waldorf, Wisnia’s vision and presence have shaped the congregation. “His warm and welcoming personality makes people feel that Beth Chaim is truly their home. He’s equal part brilliant and sense of humor, and I think that has taught our congregation to take Judaism seriously but given them permission to have fun with it.”
Berman-Waldorf, who joined the congregation when her children were 1 and 3, says, “This is the place where I grew my family, and it nurtured their love and commitment to Judaism.”
Noting that she learns from Wisnia every day, Berman-Waldorf described how his fascination with military history taught her a lot about how to deal with people and the politics they generate. “He talks about the need to think strategically and create allies and partners and also that there are certain things that are worth fighting for,” she says.
Wisnia says that Beth Chaim is stable and secure and will be here for years to come.
“It will be a Reform, liberal Jewish presence in Mercer County for the foreseeable future; we’ve made sure of that economically and physically,” he says. He suggests that in the next couple of years he will step back from his role.
“Soon a young rabbi may be at the helm, and I will be the old geezer sitting in the back to help,” he says, noting that he has no plans to leave the area. “This is my community.”