In between the festive Hebrew music and dancing, elegant dinner and warm tributes, Roger Eisenberg will be sure to take in the moment with his congregational family.
As the longest-serving cantor of Beth Israel Congregation, Eisenberg estimates he has prepared more than 1,000 young people for their bar and bat mitzvahs, officiated dozens of wedding ceremonies and performed at more funerals than he’d like to count.
“The thing with this work I do is that you don’t realize the impact you have on people,” Eisenberg said. “The nature of the work is that you take care of people, and then the next thing comes up, so you just do it without evening thinking about it. You don’t rest on your laurels, because there is no time to do that.”
On Sunday, Beth Israel will honor Eisenberg, 64, for his 17 years of service to the congregation with a Cantor’s Concert. He will step down from his post in June.
Always quick to crack a joke to lighten the mood, Eisenberg will be remembered by colleagues and congregants for his warm, welcoming personality that has made them feel like an integral part of the Beth Israel family.
“This is not a Cantor Eisenberg joke — but it’s totally a joke he would use — the real reason he’s leaving Beth Israel is because he’s run out of jokes. So what do you do when you run out of jokes? You find a new audience,” Andy Katz, Beth Israel’s executive director, said with a laugh to Eisenberg’s delight.
On a more serious note, Eisenberg said the decision to step down was primarily based on his desire to spend more time with his family, most of whom live out west.
A Rockville, Md., native, Eisenberg will move to Scottsdale, Ariz., where his wife, Liz, is already settled and live near his daughter, Shira, 33, and her husband, Drew Burns, and granddaughter Joelle, 2. Eisenberg will also be closer to his son, Chaim, 35, a San Diego resident.
“I was torn between this, but when I visited my daughter and granddaughter recently, and my granddaughter didn’t know who I was, well, that really made me think,” Eisenberg said.
Once he settles in to his new surroundings, Eisenberg plans to perform High Holiday services at a local congregation, teach young children and produce a CD of his self-written original work by next year.
But until then, he has no intention of shifting his focus from the responsibilities he has at Beth Israel. And that starts with his preparation for the Cantor’s Concert, which was originally scheduled before Eisenberg’s retirement announcement, and will feature former Beth Israel cantors Kimberly Komrad, Art Katlin and Elias Roochvarg.
His compassion and ability to work with people of all ages — from preschool-aged children to seniors — are traits that Rabbi Jay Goldstein feels make Eisenberg stand out to anyone who comes in contact with him.
“He has a real sense of inner sadness. He’ll go, ‘Oh no’ in a very real way as if he immediately feels that loss deep down within his soul,” said Goldstein, who plans to deliver remarks at the Cantor’s Concert. “I’m envious of that and give him a lot of credit.
“After perhaps a couple more decades in the rabbinate, I’ve learned that, at times, in order to not be overwhelmed by your emotions, you have to compartmentalize. He never has done that, and that’s something I give him a great deal of credit, that he is really in touch with his own feelings.”
For longtime Beth Israel congregant Toni Greenberg, that was not more evident than when her husband unexpectedly died six years ago. Greenberg, 60, said Eisenberg, through his reassuring demeanor, provided more than just a shoulder to lean on for support in what she called “one of the most unbelievably devastating situations.”
“Cantor Eisenberg was at the top of the list of people who were impacted by the situation themselves but totally there for my kids and me. I am forever grateful, and anything else I would say about Cantor Eisenberg would pale in comparison to that situation,” said Greenberg, who is heading up a national search committee to hire Eisenberg’s successor.
Eisenberg served as such an inspiration to the Greenberg family that Toni’s son, Jake, 23, is following in Eisenberg’s footsteps, studying at the H. L. Miller Cantorial School at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Jake Greenberg, his mother said, will also pay tribute to Eisenberg at the Cantor Concert.
“Cantor Eisenberg has been a big cheerleader for my son going to cantorial school,” Toni Greenberg said.
In his previous life, as Eisenberg puts it with a grin, he developed that empathy, working as a music therapist, Hillel director, religious school teacher, health care administrator and career counselor.
It was during his time as a career counselor in Lawrence, Kan., where, at the age of 39, Eisenberg took the advice he gave to one of his clients and pursued his lifelong dream of becoming a cantor. At his wife’s urging, Eisenberg left his family behind to attend Yeshiva University’s Philip and Sarah Belz School of Jewish Music, where he graduated in 1996.
He assumed his first pulpit at the Westchester Jewish Center in Mamaroneck, N.Y., just two months after graduating.
Had it not been for his wife and the support of his family, Eisenberg wonders how the course of his life might have changed.
“My wife was the one who pushed me to go to cantorial school,” said Eisenberg, who is set to celebrate his 40th wedding anniversary with Liz later this year. “She said to me, ‘You know, you’re the only one who doesn’t know you’re supposed to do this.’ She came as close to kicking me out of the house as ever, because she wanted me to go to school.”