Rabbis who are approaching the end of their seventh decade of life rarely need to learn new skills. But early next year, Eric Wisnia will have to adapt to a life that does not revolve around being the leader a local synagogue.
Wisnia, who has been the rabbi at Congregation Beth Chaim in Princeton Junction for more than 40 years, will retire at the end of January. He is looking forward to spending more time with his family after he retires, and also plants to write a book that will take a fresh Jewish look at slavery, racism and the Civil War.
He began his job at the congregation in 1977, but his active involvement in temple life started when he was a child. His father volunteered as the cantor at their congregation in Levittown, Pa. Wisnia’s rabbi, who did not have a wife or children, became his mentor.
“At a certain point he said, ‘Eric, you should be a rabbi,’” Wisnia said. “Like everything else with my rabbi, I said ‘yes sir.’”
Wisnia studied religion at the University of Pennsylvania before enrolling at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. After he earned his rabbinical degree, he spent three years as a rabbi in Toledo, Ohio, before coming to Beth Chaim.
The congregation has nearly quadrupled in size during Wisnia’s time at the helm. He was the only rabbi when he started at Beth Chaim, but the congregation has since added a second rabbi and a professional cantor.
Quick to laugh, Wisnia also likes to tell jokes, and has a manner that puts people at ease. On a recent Friday, a few hours before Shabbat services, he wore a tie decorated with a flower print.
“I’ve had fun in my rabbinate,” he said after telling a joke.
At the same time, Wisnia has enjoyed his role as a teacher, especially during these charged political times. His favorite teaching from the Torah, the foundational text of Judaism, is commonly translated as “love your neighbor as you love yourself”: v’ahavta l’reacha kamocha.
“In almost every other page in the Torah, there’s the idea that ‘you were slaves in the land of Egypt, be nice to the stranger, because you were the stranger, you know what it’s like,’” he said.
Wisnia wrote his sermon for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, about the Jewish teachings on immigrants and refugees in 2017. He was distressed by the rhetoric and policies surrounding immigration that he heard in Washington.
“I am a wetback anchor baby,” he said in his sermon. His grandfather on his mother’s side was a sailor in Russia’s Far East who worked his way to Japan and Mexico. He then illegally walked over the border into Texas, and eventually made his way to New York.
Wisnia’s father came from the Old World across the Atlantic, not the Pacific. He survived Auschwitz, then was hired as a translator by a captain in the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army. He translated for the captain for more than a year, and was invited onto the boat back to America when the unit returned home in 1946.
“When they got to Hoboken or Weehawken, or wherever the boat landed, somewhere in Jersey, Captain Walker said, ‘alright Davey, you got relatives in New York?’” Wisnia said in his sermon. “I said next time you’re talking about a wetback or an anchor baby, you’re talking to me, so don’t tell me your crap. Don’t tell me you don’t like immigrants.”
On Wisnia’s desk sits an award from the Islamic community in Princeton, which he received for helping build a mosque in West Windsor. Wisnia references the story of Purim, when Queen Esther saved the Jews of Shushan, part of the Persian Empire, to explain why it is wrong to malign entire groups when a few of their members do something wrong.
The story says that Haman, the king’s vizier in ancient Shushan, started hating Jews because a single one, Mordechai, would not bow down to him. From that single incident, Haman decided to condemn the Jewish community.
“He knows one Jew!,” Wisnia said. “I point out to my congregants, every year on Purim, that’s the real story, don’t be like Haman.”