Rabbi Robert Eisen, who will retire at the end of June after 21 years as Congregation Anshei Israel’s spiritual leader, “doesn’t like to toot his own horn,” says Dan Jurkowitz, president of the CAI board of trustees and a lifelong member of the congregation. Quietly, however, the rabbi does much, not only for the synagogue and its members but for the entire community, he says.
In the March/April issue of Kolenu, CAI’s member newsletter, Jurkowitz wrote about some of the rabbi’s recent “background activities.” These included: “chairing the Tucson Board of Rabbis, co-chairing the Jewish Community Roundtable, serving on the Tucson Hebrew High board, giving such a moving invocation at a Pima County Board of Supervisors meeting that he was asked for a copy of his address, participating in interfaith dialogue, answering questions for AP human geography students at University High School, and writing an op-ed piece for the Arizona Daily Star.”
Anshei Israel had planned to recognize Eisen last week at an event that was to include the dedication of a new beit midrash (house of study) area in his honor. Postponed due to social distancing measures needed to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the event also would have included formally extending the title of rabbi emeritus to Eisen, a move approved by CAI board of trustees, says Jurkowitz.
The circus theme of the planned party was typical of Eisen, says Stephanie Roberts, CAI’s immediate past president, who explains the rabbi insisted on a family-friendly event. “He wouldn’t let us do a dinner dance.”
Roberts says CAI’s reputation as a welcoming, inclusive synagogue was enhanced by small but meaningful changes Eisen made. One example early on, she says, was a change in membership categories, from one previously described as “married couples” or “husbands and wives” to “couple and/or family.” For someone who is LGBTQ or an ally/advocate, “maybe it feels more inclusive,” she says.
“It’s typical of him in that it’s very subtle,” Roberts says. “It’s how he interacts with people. It doesn’t come across as a big to-do but it makes a difference to the people it needs to make a difference to.
“That’s kind of the genius of him,” she adds. “He’s really comfortable to have those things happen in the background.”
Indeed, the rabbi is so self-effacing he declined to be interviewed for this article, citing a schedule made unexpectedly busy by the coronavirus, and the demands of learning to do his job in a new way to accommodate social distancing. He had planned to take a long-deferred vacation in June, after celebrating Shavuot with the congregation, says Cantorial Soloist Nichole Chorny.
“Rabbi Eisen was actually my rabbi growing up. He did my bat mitzvah,” says Chorny, who has worked full time at CAI since 2014, but began working with the congregation in various part-time roles in 2006.
“His knowledge and care for the Anshei community have created a legacy of continued strength as a Conservative synagogue. He maintains the Jewish values of the Conservative movement, but he also really meets people where they are, with a warm embrace,” Chorny says.
“He has always been wonderful with children and families,” she says, adding that through his pastoral care, “he’s touched so many lives with compassion and caring. Now is such a difficult time for everyone that he’s there for people, in some ways in the same way that he’s always been there for people, but also in a new way” as the pandemic has created issues people never have dealt with before.
Eisen came to Anshei Israel in 1999, after 10 years as the spiritual leader of Temple Beth El near Buffalo, New York. In retirement, he and his wife, Debby, will be moving to Scottsdale to be near their son.
Rabbi Emeritus Arthur Oleisky says his successor has been very devoted and will be greatly missed.
“He loves to teach Talmud, which is interesting — Talmud is not an easy thing to teach,” Oleisky says, noting that Eisen was a good teacher for a variety of adult education classes.
“He enjoyed going to the hospital to comfort patients,” he says, “and I know it meant a great deal to the patients.”
Oleisky also praised Eisen’s sonorous voice in leading services, something he could not boast, he says.
Eisen was only the third rabbi in Anshei Israel’s 90-year history, with Oleisky, who served for 29 years, following founding Rabbi Marcus Breger. “That shows the strength of the community,” says Oleisky.
Eisen will be succeeded July 1 by Rabbi Sara Metz, and Roberts says she is sure Eisen will let the new rabbi guide the kind of relationship and interaction she has with him. “She needs to be able to come in and make her way,” says Roberts.