By Stacey Dresner
BRIDGEPORT – When Rabbi James Prosnit a year ago announced his plans to retire from his post at Congregation B’nai Israel at the end of June, he in part invoked one of his heroes, Sandy Koufax. His Yom Kippur sermons often mention the Brooklyn/LA Dodger who would not pitch in a World Series game that fell on Yom Kippur.
“On my 10th anniversary the synagogue gave me a very beautiful lithograph of Sandy Koufax which hangs in my office… For me it has always been a reminder that you should always retire at the top of your game before people start asking, ‘When is he going to retire?’” Prosnit said. “And I think it’s a good time for me and a good time for us to kind of like pass the torch to the future leadership of the congregation.”
That torch will be passed to Rabbi Evan Schultz, who has served as assistant rabbi at B’nai Israel for the past seven years. He will become senior rabbi on July 1.
“I’m pleased with all of the decisions the congregation is making,” Prosnit said. “I think Evan will be great for the congregation. He has all the tools to be a terrific spiritual leader and I think the congregation did a good job in terms of doing due diligence and then focus groups within the congregation and assessments as to what the vision and the future should bring. And I’m proud that the first order of business of the search committee was to vote itself out of business.”
Rabbi Schultz recalls the first time he met Rabbi Prosnit at his interview with potential congregations at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.
“Most of the people were more formal, sitting across from us at tables, but Rabbi Prosnit and Shari [Nerreau, then a board member] just pushed the tables away and set up three chairs to the side in a circle. We did our interview that way,” Schultz said. “It was a little more intimate and it was sort of representative of B’nai Israel, with that kind of atmosphere and vibe to it. It was more of a conversation than a formal interview. And the questions were also a little different from the other synagogues. There was a creativity; a different kind of way of looking at the world; a different curiosity from Rabbi Prosnit that I had experienced from the other synagogues.
“Also I knew Rabbi Prosnit had a great reputation. I had rabbis calling me and saying, ‘You should go work with him because he’s a mensch and he will teach you and be a great mentor,’ he added.
Rabbi Prosnit arrived at B’nai Israel nearly 30 years ago succeeding the congregation’s longtime rabbi, Arnold Sher. Prosnit had served as associate rabbi at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York City and Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto.
During his time at B’nai Israel he has served as co-chair of the Bridgeport Prospers, Collective Impact Leadership Team organized by the United Way, and is a past president and current board member of Connecticut Against Gun Violence, and a past chair of Fairfield-based Operation Hope.
Soon after arriving in Bridgeport, Prosnit became an adjunct lecturer in the Religious Studies Department at Fairfield University and a member of the advisory board of the Bennett Center for Judaic Studies at Fairfield University
In his retirement from B’nai Israel, his role at Fairfield University will grow.
“I’ve been teaching an adjunct class at Fairfield for pretty much the entire time I’ve been in Connecticut and so I am going to be adding an additional class and also I’ve been named the first part-time Jewish chaplain in campus ministry,” he announced. “It’s a nice honor. There aren’t a lot of Jewish students on campus but there is a lot of interfaith work and I think Fairfield University is in a position where it would like to let Jewish students know that this is a place where they can come and not only receive a good education but a feeling of connectedness with other students.”
Besides spending more time at Fairfield University, Rabbi Prosnit and his wife Wendy plan to spend more time with their three sons – two of whom are rabbis – and “our two West Coast grandchildren and our two New Jersey grandchildren,” he said.
Rabbi Prosnit stressed three things that he is most proud of about his 30 years at B’nai Israel.
“I’m proud of the wonderful clergy-lay leader partnership in terms of what we do and accomplish as a congregation. I’ve been blessed with some really terrific lay leaders and I think we’ve cultivated a community really responsible to our congregants. A significant number of our congregants see the synagogue as a centerpiece of their lives.”
“I’m also proud of the fact that while most of our congregants no longer live in Bridgeport, we have maintained a deep connection to the city that has been our home for 160 years. Through our social action program some social justice aspects of our programming we have been mindful of that strong vector and tie to the city.
“I’m also happy that we’ve been very much a part of the Reform movement’s return to the importance Jewish tradition, embracing traditions once relegated to the sidelines. We’ve recognized the power of Jewish traditions and while we are a proud Reform congregation, we are very mindful that reform is a verb and there is a process of change that needs to help make Judaism relevant and connecting to each generation of Jews. The early reformers’ goal was to make Jews into Americans. Now our families, I think, have the American thing down really well. And the challenge is how do we make them Jews.”
Shari Nerreau, who now serves as president of B’nai Israel, met Rabbi Prosnit when her son Jason was born in 1996.
“I had just moved to Fairfield and knew nobody and didn’t want to have a big party for a bris and decided I would bring my son into a doctor on the eighth day of life and find somebody who would do the Jewish rituals,” she recalled. “I called all the area synagogues and all the rabbis refused to do that. And I called B’nai Israel and he said, ‘Sure, I will.’
“When it was all done, I said ‘What do we owe you’ and he said ‘You don’t owe me anything, I just would like to see you again sometime,’” said Nerreau, who joined B’nai Israel with her family soon after.
“Rabbi Prosnit is very humble and generous. He’s even-tempered and intelligent. And I think people really respect him. He’s the kind of person that when people disagree with him, he is able to talk with them and he may not change their minds, but they respect his opinion and he respects others who have a differing opinion. And I’ve learned that from him – to listen to people and honor them and their views. He’s just a good, nice man. I think people are proud that Jim Prosnit is their rabbi.”
The B’nai Israel congregation has already begun honoring Prosnit in his retirement.
“I’ve been referring to it as the Elton John farewell tour,” the rabbi joked.
On the Shabbat of April 12-13, two of his former assistant rabbis, Rachel Gurevitz and Fred Greene, came for the weekend and led services honoring their mentor.
On Friday, May 3, Rabbi Larry Hoffman, co-founder of “Synagogue 2000” and professor at Hebrew Union College will be the guest speaker. His talk will be on “Authentic Jewish Spirituality – Even For Skeptics Who Think There Isn’t Any.”
“That will kind of mark the transition because not only was he one of my favorite professors, but one of Rabbi Schultz’s favorite professors as well,” Prosnit said.
On May 22, the congregation will honor and celebrate Rabbi Prosnit’s wife, Wendy Bloch, at a wine, cheese and dessert reception. Guest speaker Julie Salamon, a journalist and author will speak “A Journalist Learns to Listen and Build Trust with Families and Victims Across the Divide.”
And a special service honoring Rabbi Prosnit will be held May 31, followed by a gala celebration on Saturday night, June 1.
“I’m feeling quite honored,” he said. “I’ve been getting notes and nice expressions of what we have accomplished here.”