By Rachel Gross Weinstein
Rabbi David Stern began his career at Temple Emanu-El right out of rabbinical school, eager to learn and grow as a rabbi. During the past 25 years, he has seen the synagogue, and the Dallas Jewish community, evolve into what it is today and is even more excited for the future.
Stern will be honored next weekend as he celebrates his silver anniversary at Temple Emanu-El. The festivities begin at 6 p.m. Friday, May 2, with a Shabbat service where Rabbi David Saperstein will be the guest, followed by a congregational Shabbat dinner. It continues with a gala Saturday, May 3 and culminates with a groundbreaking for the renovations of the synagogue building at 11:30 a.m. Sunday, May 4 and a congregational lunch.
Although this milestone is not lost on Stern, he believes the success of the synagogue throughout the years is due to the collaborative effort of the staff and lay leaders.
“There isn’t a single day in the past 25 years that has been about me,” he said. “I am a dialogic thinker and collaborative worker and Temple Emanu-El is a place that has that environment. I feel really grateful to be celebrating 25 years. The weekend celebration is representative of the wonderful relationship I have with the congregation, and it’s a celebration of the congregation’s future. It’s retrospective in looking back, but also all about the future. We have accomplished so much, but there is still so much more to do.”
Social justice, teaching, Israel and making connections with people have been an important part of Stern’s time at Temple Emanu-El. Over the years, the congregation has been at the forefront of social justice activities in the city, along with high-caliber Jewish learning and Israel programming. He is also proud of the relationship between Temple Emanu-El and Vickery Meadow.
Even with many accomplishments, there have also been some challenges for Stern and Temple Emanu-El — like changes in worship, new ideas and the evolution of the Reform movement — but he said all of those have been beneficial. These challenges allow for more growth in the future, he said.
“There is so much important, sacred work ahead of us,” Stern said. “There is a big agenda with bringing people to authentic connections with each other, and for the social justice work that’s still before us. This is still a city and nation that needs healing. I believe profoundly that the Jewish tradition impels us to participate in that. We also still have a long way to go in Jewish learning, Jewish literacy and helping 21st century Reform Jews be knowledgable, be in committed Jewish practice. We cannot look back and say we are done. The work is as urgent as it was when they first founded Temple Emanu-El in 1872 and I am excited about it.”
Stern said he was originally attracted to Temple Emanu-El because of its rich history, and the opportunity to work with Rabbi Shelly Zimmerman, who was the senior rabbi when he arrived in June 1989. After seven years, he was appointed as the senior rabbi in August 1996.
Prior to coming to Temple Emanu-El, Stern served as an intern at the Central Synagogue in New York City. He received a bachelor’s degree in English from Dartmouth College, has a masters in Jewish Education and Hebrew Letters and was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
Stern grew up in New York and knew since he was 5-years-old that he wanted to be a rabbi, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. Being present in people’s lives during the happiest and saddest times is the most rewarding part of the job, he said.
“I am constantly stimulated and uplifted and there is always something meaningful and interesting that happens,” he said. “The best part for me is the mix of being present with people during significant moments in their lives, teaching and learning and the counseling. The public stuff is the part that shows, but that’s not where the real work has been. That’s been in meeting with the family before a funeral, meeting with a couple before the wedding or really getting to know the bar mitzvah kid. It’s an honor everyday to continue the legacy of leadership at this congregation and to feel I have a place in that is really humbling. I really love my job.”
In addition to his rabbinical duties, Stern participated in a study mission to Darfur in 2005, served as rabbi-in-residence for an American Jewish World Service Study mission to Nicaragua last year and leads yearly trips to Israel. Locally, he serves on the boards of Community Homes for Adults, the Dallas Jewish Coalition for the Homeless and the Dallas Children’s Advocacy Center.
Suzi Greenman has seen the impact of Stern’s work firsthand over the years. Her family has been part of Temple Emanu-El since it was founded and she was the president when Stern became senior rabbi.
“Rabbi Stern never ceases to amaze me,” she said. “He is a very caring pastor and there is nobody that is more attentive. The other thing that sets him apart is that he has a great sense of humor and a great attitude about life and it’s contagious. We are very fortunate that he has been with us for that long.”
Current Temple Emanu-El President Scott McCartney has been involved at the synagogue for the past 12 years and completed his conversion with Stern, who also officiated at both of his daughters’ bat mitzvahs.
He said Stern has not only been an amazing rabbi, but a fantastic teacher and brilliant leader in the Dallas community.
“His 25th anniversary says a lot because he has made Dallas and Temple Emanu-El his home,” McCartney said. “He is prominent in the national Reform Jewish circle, yet he is a guy who teaches Talmud every Wednesday and works hard with bnai mitzvah kids everyday. To know him as a rabbi is a real blessing. He is a compassionate, funny and all-around great guy.”
Looking ahead, Stern’s goal is to continue building on what he, the other staff and lay leaders have done in the past, and making the temple and the Dallas Jewish community even stronger.
He believes this will happen by connecting with people, making a big synagogue feel smaller and providing the opportunity for people to have authentic relationships with each other.
“The end game for me is to open people’s hearts to the possibility of God,” he said. “Now more than ever, when our lives are so fragmented, if someone as a result of being part of this community has a sense of spiritual connection to something beyond themselves, and whether its through Shabbos, private prayer, meditation or whatever they want that’s the whole ballgame. If people feel connected, they will have a reason to be part of a religious community. I never want this to be about me, but what this community means for people. The glory for me is that it’s humbling because I do my work with great people every day.”
Tickets for the celebration gala are $180 each and the other weekend events are free. For more information or and RSVP, call 214-706-0000 ext. 138 or visit www.tedallas.org.