04 June 2018

Annual Meeting Remarks: Rabbi Stoller

Written by Rabbi Brian Stoller

It’s hard for me to believe I’ve completed my first year here at Temple.  It’s been a great year, a whirlwind year – for me, at least.  And for my family, too:

Moving to a new city and a new house.  Getting to know the lay of the land, and the congregants, and the community.  Building relationships with our lay leaders and our professional team.  Learning, and growing into this new role.

Lindsay and Zachary started at their new schools and have made some nice new friends.  Karen started a new job at Opera Omaha. 

It’s been a year of transition, a year of change, and a year of growth.  The congregation has embraced our family with open arms, and we are delighted to be here in Omaha and at Temple Israel. 

It’s been a whirlwind year, for sure – but a fun year, and a meaningful year, too.  And I want to thank all of you for welcoming us into your lives.

* * *

We had a great year as a congregation, and we have a lot to be proud of.  Our lay leadership, with Rosie at the helm, has done a tremendous job of partnering with me and our professional team to set our direction going forward, and to lay the groundwork for success.

I’m proud of a great number of things we did this year – and I’d like to highlight a few of them.

First, our committees.  One of Rosie’s priorities during her term was to re-ignite our committee-work in several core-value areas of Temple life – and she did that.  And now, at the end of her presidency, these committees are energetic and high-functioning.

  • Our Social Justice Committee – led by Geoff Silverstein, Sarah Gilbert, and Rabbi Berezin – is doing amazing work mobilizing our members to address the plague of hunger in Omaha.
  • Our Caring Committee – under the leadership of Gretchen Radler and Cantor Shermet – is a compassionate and active presence in our lives, helping us when we’re at our most vulnerable.
  • Our Tri-Faith Committee – headed by Lee Needelman, Lisa Lewis, and Bonni Leiserowitz, in partnership with me – is hard at work creating meaningful opportunities for us to connect with our Christian and Muslim friends.
  • Our Membership Committee, under the leadership of the amazing Jessica Cohn, is busy welcoming our new members, and will work closely with our new Director of Congregational Engagement to develop a strategy for membership growth and integration.
  • And our Art Committee – led by Todd Simon and Jack Becker – is doing some exciting visioning about how to enhance the beauty of our building with high-quality, warm, and thought-provoking art of many different mediums.

Secondly, we introduced some new ways of observing the Jewish holidays this year:

  • We created a powerful and solemn new service for Tisha B’Av, where we reflected on the brokenness in the world and in our lives, and congregants who had lost a loved one in the past couple years were invited to light a candle in their memory.
  • We celebrated Simchat Torah and Consecration last fall in our beautiful Simon Community Court with festive music, and lots of dancing – and we unrolled the Torah scrolls around the entire Community Court so our youngest children could see them.
  • Our Leadership Development team created a fantastic Adult Purim, and our teens and Dani Howell wrote and performed a fun and funny Purim shpiel.
  • Rabbi Berezin and her amazing team of volunteers created a fun and engaging Community Passover Seder, where everyone got to participate in telling the story by making Play-Do sculptures.
  • And just a couple weeks ago, we celebrated Shavuot in our Community Court with a lively service, a community dairy dinner, and an evening of Torah study taught by the clergy.

On the engagement front, we launched two very successful new initiatives:

  • As a way to get more kids and young families excited about services, Cantor Shermet and our member Sara Cowan created our new children’s choir for 2nd-5th-graders, and the choir sang at our new multi-generational “Chocolate Shabbat” service in April. Chocolate Shabbat was joyful and buzzing with energy, and it will become a regular fixture in our calendar on the third Friday of every month, starting in October.
  • And as a way for us to get to know each other on a deeper level, Cat King partnered with Sally Kaplan and Lester Katz to launch Conversations with the Clergy – where small groups of congregants and clergy meet in a member’s home to talk about our Jewish stories. This is something that will be ongoing at Temple for at least the next couple of years.

* * *

This coming year, we’ll be focusing on creating as many vibrant portals, or entryways, into Jewish life as we can, so that you can connect with Judaism in ways that speak to your particular interests and passions. 

We’ll also be making some exciting improvements to our high school program, in response to feedback from kids and parents at a listening session last month. 

And finally, we will continue to focus on building and deepening our relationships with you, our congregants.  Because to be a holy community is to be a community where we feel known, and loved, and embraced by people who genuinely care.

* * *

One of the truly amazing things about Temple Israel is the quality and commitment of our professional staff. 

I feel blessed to work with a group of people who love this congregation deeply, who respect and admire each other, and who give their all to serving our community.  I’d like to take a moment to recognize the outstanding work of my partners on our professional team.

Cantor Shermet – You’re the dean of our team.  I am grateful to you for all you’ve done this year to bring a sense of continuity and comfort to our congregants in a time of great change.  The work you’ve done to create our kids’ choir and inspire us with music has made a tremendous impact this year.  Thank you for your leadership and your wise counsel, and for loving our congregation unconditionally.

Rabbi Berezin – You lead with sincerity, kindness, and affection.  You have done outstanding work this year building our Rosh Chodesh community for women, our Tish group for adults in their 30s and 40s, and of course, our Social Justice initiatives.  It’s a real testament to your talent and presence that, after only two years here, there are so many congregants who already look to you as their rabbi and spiritual guide.

Dennis – You are a caring, devoted, bedrock presence in our Temple.  Your work ethic is beyond compare; we can always count on you to keep us fiscally responsible, to have our backs, and to get things done.  Thank you for supporting us in everything we do.

Sharon – Thank you for bringing your experience and your steady hand to our team, and for leading our school with wisdom, kindness, intention.  It’s so evident how much you love our children, and how they love you.  In addition to running our school, you’ve done excellent work this year organizing our new bakers’ crew and making it possible for our youngest kids to have an amazing summer-camping experience at OSRUI.  Thank you!

Aliyah – Thank you for being such a cheerful, optimistic, and energetic presence on our team.  With your enthusiasm and sincerity, you bring out the best in our teens and young people.  We’re going to miss having you on our professional team, but we are excited that you’ll continue to be a teacher in our school and an active volunteer as a congregant!

 

Cassandra – You have stepped into your new role as Director of Communications with confidence, energy, and incredible skill.  I am grateful to you for your creativity, your outstanding work-ethic, and your enduring devotion to Temple.  We are so incredibly blessed to have you on our team!

I know Misty isn’t here today, but you all need to know – as I’m sure many of you do – we would be nowhere without Misty.  She is the rock of the staff – our go-to person for pretty much everything.  Misty is among the most efficient, productive people I have ever worked with.  All of us are so grateful to Misty for holding us up every day and for quietly and elegantly enabling us to do what we do.

I also want to say a big thank you to our office team:

Michelle Shea, who greets our congregants so warmly when the call and visit; Jen Goodman, who helps Sharon run our school with such intention and compassion; Vicki Ducharme and Jeff Schweid, who manage our books with such precision and thoughtfulness; and, of course, Scott Anderson and Darius Daye for keeping our building humming and for being such friendly, welcoming presences for our community. 

Scott, I love how you greet people in the Community Court before services with a big smile on your face and a hearty “Shabbat Shalom!”  Your presence makes such a positive impact on our congregation, and we’re grateful to you for all you do.

And, finally, Rabbi Azriel – We are blessed by your continued presence in our community as our teacher, our mentor, our sage, our confidante, our rabbi, and our friend.  Your visionary leadership and your love for our people reverberate so strongly through the congregation and through the Tri-Faith Initiative.  We are grateful that you remain such a strong and caring presence in our lives.   

*  * *

And now, to the woman of the hour.

Our Sages say in Pirkei Avot: “Aseh l’kha rav, uk’neh l’kha chaver – Find yourself a teacher, get yourself a friend.”

Rosie, in this past year, as I’ve transitioned into this new role, you have been a supportive, caring, compassionate, wise, and trusted advisor to me. 

You’ve taught me about this community.  You’ve modeled for me how to lead with vision and humility. 

You have given of yourself tirelessly and lovingly.  You are always available to talk through a problem, brainstorm ideas, or be a non-anxious presence and a good listener.

We have built what I consider to be a truly sacred partnership – and also a deeply meaningful and valued friendship.

“Find yourself a teacher, get yourself a friend.”  Thank you, Rosie, for being my teacher and my friend.

And thank you for being our teacher and our friend.

The leaders of this congregation have a saying: “The right president comes along at the right time.”

Rosie, there is absolutely no question that you were the right person to lead our congregation during the period of great transition these last couple years.

After the retirement of our beloved Rabbi Azriel and the departure of our adored Associate Rabbi Brown, you and your brilliant team of lay leaders charted the course for Temple Israel’s future.

You oversaw the hiring of our interim Rabbi Crystal, the magnificent selection of Rabbi Berezin, and the decision to bring me here as your new senior rabbi.

           

Such significant change in a congregation’s clergy leadership is not easy to manage, and it could have been quite disruptive to the community.  But thank God we had Rosie Zweiback leading us through it – with her steady hand, her gentle presence, her innate wisdom, and her close personal relationships with the people of our congregation.

Oh, and we can’t forget that magical power she has – the fact that people just can’t say “no” to Rosie!

Rosie, that’s because we admire you so much, and everything you bring to the table as our leader:

--You’re a visionary, and at the same time, you also have an excellent ability to implement on a practical level.

--You’re inviting and considerate of all opinions, and yet firm in leading us in the direction you know we need to go.

--You’re fully present in the moment, and you also have an incredible ability to see beyond the horizon.

--And most importantly, you lead with compassion, with genuine love for your people, and with a smile on your face.

Yasher koach, Rosie, on an incredibly successful presidency.  Thank you for being our teacher and our friend.

* * *

Andie, Rosie has set the table for you beautifully.  And I know that, like her, you are the right president for us at the right time.

Now that we’ve made it through our biggest transitions in leadership, you are ready to move us ahead, to think big, and to blaze the trail for the next chapter of Temple Israel’s journey.

On a personal level, Andie – you and I became fast friends from the time you co-chaired my search committee, and we’ve built a strong partnership over the last year.

We consult with each other constantly, and we share a vision for where we’d like to lead this congregation.

You will be an outstanding president because you are energetic, bold, and forward-looking.  You have a remarkable ability to navigate challenges with finesse and sharp insight, and you are deeply attuned with and attentive to the community’s needs.

All of us on the professional team are incredibly excited about the next two years, and we are ready to move forward together.

As we complete one chapter in Temple’s story and begin another, I offer this prayer from our tradition: Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek – May we be strong, may we be strong, and may we strengthen one another.

 

 

About the Author

Rabbi Brian Stoller

Rabbi Brian Stoller

Rabbi Stoller - Senior Rabbi
bstoller@templeisraelomaha.com

Rabbi A. Brian Stoller joined Temple Israel as Senior Rabbi in 2017. He is a friendly, patient, and welcoming presence known for greeting people warmly, remembering our names, and just being himself. He is also an energetic, knowledgable, and passionate teacher who challenges us intellectually and guides us in mining Judaism’s sacred texts for insights that will help us navigate the unique circumstances of our own lives. As a prayer leader, he strives to pray not on behalf ofhis congregants, but with us, so that together we can rise toward the heavens. Most importantly, he is a caring and devoted relationship-builder who genuinely enjoys people and wants to be our friend. As Rabbi Stoller has said, “I just go out there and try to be myself because I believe that, in the end, all of us are seeking the same thing: to feel loved, to find meaning and purpose in life, and to be embraced by people who genuinely care. In my view, a synagogue’s mission is to create this kind of community for its members. All the rest, as they say, is commentary.”

Following the dictum that “the teacher of Torah must be a student of Torah throughout his life,” Rabbi Stoller is currently pursuing a doctorate in halakhah (Jewish law) and has published a number of essays on Jewish law, practice, and theology. He is an active member of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), serving on the Responsa Committee, the annual convention planning team, and the editorial board of the CCAR Journal. Rabbi Stoller received his ordination from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Cincinnati campus in 2008, and served as Associate Rabbi of Congregation BJBE in Deerfield, IL from 2008-2017. He grew up in Houston, TX (Congregation Emanu El), and earned a degree in Honors Business and Finance from the University of Texas at Austin in 1996.

Before entering rabbinic school, Rabbi Stoller spent seven years in professional politics, working on campaigns in Texas, Colorado, and Illinois, and serving as Press Secretary to then-U.S. Senator Peter Fitzgerald (IL) in Washington, DC from 1999-2003. After seeing the Pentagon burn from his office window on September 11, 2001 and learning of a childhood friend’s death from brain cancer a year later, Brian knew the time had come to follow his deeply-held desire to become a rabbi. “It was then that I finally understood: life is fragile; we do not know how long we are going to be here,” he has said. “For several years, I had been too fearful, too anxious about change to pursue what I knew in my heart I wanted to do with my life, but now I was ready to go for it. Aside from marrying Karen and starting a family, it was the best decision I have ever made.”

Rabbi Stoller is proud to be part of Temple Israel, which he describes as “a warm, friendly, welcoming, close-knit congregation, with the vision and the courage to change our community and our world for the better.” He lives in Omaha with his wife Karen and his two children, Lindsay and Zachary. In his free time, Rabbi Stoller enjoys reading classical Jewish texts (yes, really!), cycling, and re-watching episodes of “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

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