Congregation Beth Chaim in West Windsor will have a new senior rabbi starting on July 1.
Associate rabbi Adena Blum has been selected to replace rabbi emeritus Eric Wisnia, who retired last year. Wisnia served the congregation for 42 years, followed by now-serving interim rabbi Brian Beal.
A resident of Robbinsville, Blum grew up in Lawrence Township, where her parents still live. She’s also not far from her childhood synagogue, Har Sinai Hebrew Congregation in Trenton, where Wisnia, then a cantor, ignited her passion for Judaism as she worked with him on her bat mitzvah.
“He saw my interest and aptitude, and he leaned into that,” she says. “We had all kinds of conversations about Jewish history, life and tradition.”
Wisnia also taught her how to read Torah and to lead a Jewish prayer service.
“I internalized what he taught me,” she recalls. And that came in handy when faculty member Rabbi Lauren Levy at the Lawrenceville School asked her to do bar mitzvah tutoring for the younger siblings of Jewish students whose families were not affiliated with a synagogue, which became another spur to her own learning.
After her confirmation at Har Sinai at the end of 10th grade, Blum was wondering about the next step on her Jewish path when by happenstance a friend told her about the Jewish Community High School of Gratz College held at Shir Ami synagogue in Newtown, Pennsylvania.
She decided to go, and the school gave her not only another opportunity to learn herself, but also another push toward Jewish education. She not only earned a certificate there qualifying her to teach at Reform movement schools, but she was also required to be an assistant teacher at her home synagogue.
Also during this period, two of her Jewish role models independently recognized her potential as a Jewish leader and suggested that she might want to become a rabbi.
Levy, Blum says, “starting joking that one day I should take her job,” and a Gratz teacher, Larry Sernovitz, pulled her aside and said, “You seem to enjoy this. Have you ever thought about becoming a rabbi?”
This got her thinking that maybe they were right.
She applied to Brandeis University for its great Near Eastern and Judaic studies department and earned a bachelor’s degree in 2006. She spent her junior year at the University of Haifa in Israel.
Several years later she was accepted as a student at Hebrew Union College in New York, where she was ordained as a rabbi and earned a master’s degree in religious education. During her years in rabbinical school, she served as a rabbinic intern at two New Jersey synagogues, a Hillel (college-level Jewish organization), two hospitals and two summer camps of the Union for Reform Judaism.
During her six years at Beth Chaim as assistant and associate rabbi, Blum has grown as a religious leader and in return contributed much to the congregation.
She became more skilled in pastoral work by working with people of all different ages in much more intimate ways.
“When you are a full time pulpit rabbi, people really let you into their lives in ways that they might not let a part-time student rabbi,” she says.
She has learned the skills necessary to run an organization. “Out of necessity I have learned a lot about the business side of synagogue life: marketing, budgeting, how to increase revenue and minimize expenses and fundraising,” she says.
Blum has developed a more holistic approach to Jewish education. That starts with strengthening the ties between the preschool, where she has been very involved, and the synagogue.
“We don’t want the families [that identify as Jewish] to think of us just as a necessary service in their likes; we hope they see Beth Chaim as their spiritual community as well,” she says.
Blum has also created more opportunities for parents to be involved in their children’s training for their b’nai mitzvahs, ceremonies where thirteen-year-olds first take on the responsibilities required of an adult Jew by reading Torah and leading services.
“I’m not working with students in a vacuum, but really creating it as a family milestone and working with the family as a whole,” Blum says.
One program she initiated is a six-week family class. She has also worked with the current b’nai mitzvah families to get their feedback on the process and “to reenvision what it can look like.” Not only did it help her understand their perspectives, but, she says, “Those families felt heard.”
Blum also changed the way the students interact with their Torah portion, by having them write a “Dvar Torah,” their own take on the weekly reading from the first five books of the Bible. “Before they created a summary, and now they really dive deep into the meaning of the Torah portion,” she says.
Blum also instituted an interfaith family Shabbat, she says, “to honor non-Jewish family members in the congregation who are committed to having a Jewish family.”
She herself grew up in an interfaith family, where she learned important lessons that would affect the character of her rabbinate.
“Not only am I very sensitive to issues around interfaith families, but also those same issues have really helped me understand inclusion writ large: how do we help everyone who might feel on the outside feel included in our community,” she says.
Blum’s vision of inclusion also encompasses gender. “We as a staff have been learning a lot about gender identity and are trying to use inclusive language to show that we are a safe place for anyone of any gender identity, including using pronouns in emails as a marker,” she says.
Inclusion also means making people feel as comfortable as possible with the prayer services. In that vein Blum transitioned the congregation to a new prayer book that transliterates all the prayers and uses more contemporary language, which makes it “much more accessible.”
Inclusion can also be communal. Blum is closely involved with other religious leaders in West Windsor and those in the Windsor-Hightstown Area Ministerium, or Wham, where she served as president between 2017 and 2019. She has also worked closely with the Muslim Center of Greater Princeton in West Windsor on community-wide interfaith dialogue, especially in response to current events. And, she adds, “we have had an incredible response from the mosque whenever an anti-Semitic incident in the news.”
Engaging difficult demographics, like young families and teens, is a challenge for many synagogues, Beth Chaim included.
Beth Chaim is thinking strategically about how to engage young families who do not have children in Beth Chaim’s preschool, and Blum describes two ideas. The first is to partner with Wendy Soos, executive director of the JCC Princeton Mercer Bucks and Abrams Camps. The camp has a large audience of unaffiliated families and will also be running PJ Library, which provides free Jewish books to young children and also plans programs to engage parents.
The second idea is to reach outside the Jewish world. “We need to start thinking out of building to engage these young families,” Blum says. That could mean doing programming in local libraries and community centers, places they would already go, to lower barriers of entry. “If they create relationships with the rabbi or other staff then they are more likely to come to a Tot Shabbat [Sabbath] in our building,” Blum says.
Regarding teens, she says, “We are trying to think of the big picture. We’ve been leaning toward social justice and advocacy work. How do we help them realize that Judaism can empower them to make a meaningful difference in the world through positive change.”
Blum speaks to Rabbi Wisnia every couple of weeks, she says, “as we are both trying to navigate these new waters for both of us.” His continuing support of her leadership, past and into the future, is assured, but, she says, “we are trying to figure out what his new role as emeritus will be.”
Her mother, Robin Kemper, is a structural engineer who recently served as president of her professional organization. Her father, Christopher Kemper, is in the pharmaceutical industry, initially in drug development and now consulting to help drug companies with their drug development processes and getting FDA approval. Her husband, Sean, does corporate finance for a construction company. They have two sons, Jonah and Ari.
Looking to the next five years, Blum had a short answer to what she hopes to accomplish. “The big thing is continuing to having a thriving, vibrant Jewish community in this part of New Jersey.”
And as to how she’s going to manage this in her new role, she says, “You learn how to be a very good multi-tasker.”