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Who Is Rabbi David Stern... Really?
By Leah Wittenberg, Lawrence Magdovitz ISJL Fellow
We are honored to have Rabbi David Stern as our keynote speaker at the Education Conference this year. I had the pleasure of speaking with Rabbi Stern over the phone, and while I can’t provide specific information about his keynote, I am excited to share some tidbits from this recent phone conversation as well as from my experience as the Education Fellow for his congregation, Temple Emanu-El of Dallas, Texas.
I first ‘met’ Rabbi Stern, believe it or not, over FaceTime at Thanksgiving dinner in 2017. He was dining with family friends in Dallas, and I was in Jackson with mutual family friends. What I didn’t realize was that only a week earlier, he had been inducted onto the Board of Governors of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR).
After talking briefly with Rabbi Stern, it is easy to see why he is such a distinguished individual. He is not only a dynamic orator, an inspiring scholar, and a courageous leader; Rabbi Stern has the ability to connect with his congregants on a deeply emotional and personal level.
Rabbi Stern has actually been with Temple Emanu-El since he was ordained from HUC-JIR in 1989 and currently serves as the senior rabbi. I was curious as to how his experience at Emanu-El has shaped his career:
“I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to spend my rabbinic career in one place. For me, the combination of daily stimulus and shared teaching and learning [with congregants and faculty] is a unique blessing. There are ways to grow by leaving and there are ways to grow by staying. I’ve chosen the latter.”
Rabbi Stern cites the opportunity to officiate lifecycle events for multiple generations of families as one of the highlights of being in one congregation for so long.
During our phone call, I asked Rabbi Stern a question I personally struggle with – What do you see as the future of American Judaism?
“I think that among the many tectonic shifts, a big one is the kind of fragmentation that people experience in their daily lives - social media, pace of change, pace of life - people feel unmoored and they are not always aware of it. Congregations are even more important now. They create meaningful human connections which is a pathway to spiritual connections. The locus of the community can be the congregation. A congregation should be able to have difficult conversations.”
In order to understand and appreciate others who have different opinions than our own, Rabbi Stern emphasizes the importance of curiosity, saying, “curiosity is the cognitive cousin of empathy.” He believes in the power of inspiring and provoking curiosity and a genuine interest, so that we can ask questions and truly be interested in the other person’s response and ideas.
Expanding on this concept, he explained, “The irony of big congregations is that they are trying to act like small congregations. I wake up every day and ask myself: How can I make this place feel smaller? We are working on making small groups – cohorts – of five to six families so there is a relational basis before [these difficult conversations or] arguments arise.”
These ideas translate to the ISJL Education Conference. We must strive to maintain a sense of openness and curiosity when engaging with others throughout the conference. My final question for Rabbi Stern was about what he hopes to gain from the conference:
“I’m most looking forward to what I’ll learn from it…I hope to explore questions of what we want education to be at large and the relationship with both the affective and cognitive sides. How do we both meet and expand people’s needs? We have to recognize the context but not feel imprisoned by it…How can we be ambitious with limitations? The needs and possibilities for small congregations are not unique and [are at times no different than those of large congregations.] There is a ton to learn and hopefully every syllable I speak at the conference will impart wisdom from my setting and show a shared reality [between congregations large and small.]”