When Rabbi Eric Milgrim came to the newly established Reform Temple of East Brunswick right out of rabbinical school 40 years ago, he expected to follow the path of most young rabbis by getting some experience and moving on to a larger congregation.
However, decades passed and the congregation grew along with its young rabbi. He has officiated at thousands of life-cycle events, performing baby-namings, conducting bar and bat mitzvas, and officiating at weddings for three generations of families at what became Temple B’nai Shalom.
“I can’t believe 40 years have gone by,” said Milgrim in an interview, as the congregation prepared to say good-bye June 30 to the only religious leader it has ever known.
Milgrim notified the congregation last year of his decision to retire.
The synagogue has hired Rabbi Eric Eisenkramer to succeed Milgrim, beginning July 1. It has also named Milgrim rabbi emeritus, giving him a permanent office in the synagogue.
During a weekend of tribute June 21-23 — featuring a klezmer concert, special Shabbat services, and a dinner-dance — the congregation will also celebrate its own 40th anniversary.
“I have had a wonderful relationship” with the congregation, said Milgrim, as he recalled holding services and religious school in public schools and hotels before it moved into its current building in 1978.
Over the years, he was involved with founding the temple’s nursery school and adult bat mitzva program, and was a leader in interfaith and interdenominational relations as a founding member of the East Brunswick Youth Council and its Human Relations Commission. He has been chaplain for the local police department for more than 16 years.
Under Milgrim’s guidance, the temple has participated in many joint events with the Conservative East Brunswick Jewish Center and Orthodox Young Israel of East Brunswick.
“He means so much to this congregation and has been a huge supporter of my family,” said Barbara Syetta, its fund-raising vice president and chair the celebratory weekend. “The rabbi and his wife, Sue, have really become part of my extended family.
“My son had some issues learning Hebrew,” Syetta said, “and with the rabbi’s help he was able to become bar mitzva. Now he’s done so well he’s actually reading Torah at the last service honoring Rabbi Milgrim.” That service will feature teen Torah and haftara readers and the youth choir.
The theme of family was echoed over and over again by longtime congregants.
“I would say Eric and Sue Milgrim are among our closest friends,” said Arnold Brown, now of Monroe and a member close to the temple’s entire existence. “Our kids grew up together.”
Milgrim came to the congregation a year before graduating from the Academy for Jewish Religion in Riverdale, NY.
Starting with 10 families in December 1972, it grew to 650 families in the mid-1980s. For a time the congregation met in East Brunswick public schools, prompting a lawsuit — settled in state Supreme Court — that allowed religious institutions to use public schools.
Once in its own building, the congregation grew rapidly, establishing its nursery school with more than 250 students. Within a few years, its religious school had 650 students and the temple was holding three b’nei mitzva ceremonies each Shabbat. There are now 250 children in the school.
“Like all congregations in the area, we’ve seen shrinkage,” said Milgrim. “We’re down to 300 families, but now we’re beginning to pick up some young families again.”
In 2002, B’nai Shalom dedicated its Daniel Pearl Education Center, named for the Wall Street Journal reporter slain by Muslim militants, to promote understanding and tolerance. The ceremony was attended by community leaders and by Pearl’s father, Judea.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a crowd of more than 1,000 filled the sanctuary for a memorial service.
George and Janet Gordon, who now live in Plainsboro, came to B’nai Shalom about six months after the congregation started and immediately knew they had found a spiritual home. “I remember the first day we came, they were holding a service at the school and Rabbi Milgrim came over, and I said , ‘Who’s this kid?’” recalled George. “He was such a young man.”
One of the things that has most impressed George has been Milgrim’s relationship with the congregation’s children. “For years when he gave his sermon, he would bring all the kids up and talk to them and tell them stories,” said George. “That’s what we wanted in a religious leader.”
“We are so proud to have had Eric Milgrim as our rabbi,” said Harriet Golub, a former president and 35-year-member. “He gave his youth for this congregation. The highlight of my presidency was working with Eric.”
Arnold Brown, also a former president, praised Milgrim’s work ethic and his devotion to education at the temple. “This man put in untold hours for 40 years,” he added. “He’s always been there for simhas and sorrow.”
Leaving “is very bittersweet,” said Milgrim, who will move with his wife to an adult community in Hightstown. Stepping down will give him a chance to spend time with their three children, including a daughter in Israel, and 10 grandchildren.
“East Brunswick is a wonderful place to have children, and Sue and I have so many friends in the community,” he said. “It just doesn’t seem like 40 years. Everything went by in the blink of an eye.”