NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - It was 1974. The Sting and The Exorcist were in the movie theaters. President Richard Nixon resigned from office, and Rabbi Bennett Miller was in his first year at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple.
“I expected to be here three to five years,” Miller said.
He remained much longer, starting as assistant rabbi and continuing until last month, when he retired as elder senior rabbi after 44 years.
In that time the congregation at the Temple has grown and now reaches well beyond the city, numerous educational and Bible study programs have been established, and the religious center began projects to help the homeless and impoverished in the city.
Miller has also persuaded more than 100 students from the to study for a semester at the Issac and Helaine Heller EIE High School in Israel, which he says is a large number than from any other Reformed congregation in North American.
“It was a great run,” Miller said of his more than four decades at AEMT.
During that time he has seen changes in the temple and New Brunswick. When he arrived as a newly ordained rabbi, the city had foreboding reputation, with little activity downtown at night.
“It was a place that you were told you should not feel safe,” he said. That has since changed. “Now, New Brunswick is alive every night, seven nights a week.” Equally important, he said, has been the construction of new city schools.
When he arrived, the temple had little activity at night and weekends. Most of the congregation was from New Brunswick or neighboring Highland Park.
Now the 500-plus families who are members including people from Metuchen to Princeton.
There are programs several nights a week and several religious classes on weekends.
While some members and leaders over the years urged moving the temple to the suburbs, Miller contended it should remain in the city, in part because of the beautiful building constructed in 1930. The temple was originally founded in the city in 1859.
More importantly, Miller said, was the opportunity to serve the city.
“We open our doors to the homeless,” he said. “We are the largest distributor of (disposable) diapers in the state.” The temple has a Community Development Corporation that donates formula to mothers in need, and lends out car seats and baby furniture.
Members, the Rabbi said, volunteer at Elijah’s Promise Community Soup Kitchen, and are involved in the city’s two hospital as well as the George Street Playhouse.
Miller has been the driving force behind all the temple efforts, said Keith Krivitzky, CEO of The Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey
“Rabbi Bennett has done an amazing job shepherding his community,” Krivitzky said.
“He really brought this Jewish voice in a relationship with the community. In a place of increasing divisiveness, he has been keeping people focused on the community and to bring value to the community,” he said
Krivitzky said Miller's work has extended beyond the temple and the city to work on national organizations.
Miller is the immediate past president of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, and serves in several other national organizations. Miller is a founding member of the pastoral committee at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, and serves on a committee for Jewish studies at Rutgers University.
Having recently turned 70, Miller says he will stay active with those organizations outside the temple. He may still serve AEMT in some form in the future.
One part of his work at the temple that he will miss is seeing projects begin with ideas and progress into community programs
“I will miss the day-to-day interaction with people, from children to senior citizens. I will miss listening and dreaming, and seeing the dreams come to fruition,” he said.