At the beginning of July, Rabbi Brian Stoller moved to Great Neck from Omaha, NE, to be Temple Beth-El’s new senior rabbi. Rabbi Stoller is Temple-Beth El’s seventh senior rabbi in its 94-year-old history. Temple Beth-El is the peninsula’s first synagogue and one of the largest in the area, with approximately 550 families in the community.
As the senior rabbi, Stoller is the spiritual leader of the congregation. He will work with the lay leadership to set a vision for the congregation and lead the community toward that vision.
Rabbi Stoller grew up in Houston, TX, and initially worked in politics. After college, Rabbi Stoller worked on campaigns and then worked in the U.S. Senate in Washington for five years.
When asked what inspired him to become a rabbi, he joked that “seven years in politics is enough to drive you to God.”
But in all seriousness, Rabbi Stoller felt a calling to become a rabbi through his passion for learning. When working in DC, a Christian friend would often ask him questions about Judaism. At that time in Rabbi Stoller’s life, he wasn’t very involved in Jewish life and couldn’t give thorough answers to his friend’s questions.
“I was raised in a Jewish family and went to the synagogue as a kid,” said Rabbi Stoller. “But I hadn’t studied Judaism for quite a while, and the questions my friend was asking were a little beyond what I had learned.”
After speaking with the rabbi he grew up with, Rabbi Stoller read some recommended books, and the readings captured his interest.
“The books opened up this whole world of intellectual and spiritual life that I had not realized even existed, and I wanted to learn more,” said Rabbi Stoller. “I’ve always been a learner; I love to learn and study. To be honest, I didn’t like the feeling of not being able to answer [my friend’s] questions intelligently, so that prompted me to learn.”
Amid Rabbi Stoller’s learning, his life and career trajectory changed when he was on Capitol Hill during 9/11 and when a childhood friend passed away from brain cancer about a year later.
“Those two events made me realize that life is very fragile, and I had this sense that becoming a rabbi is what I wanted to do,” explained Rabbi Stoller. “I felt very nervous about it, but I knew it was something I wanted to do. It was very much calling for me.”
Rabbi Stoller served as an associate rabbi in Deerfield, IL, for nine years and as a senior rabbi in Omaha, NE, for five years, previously to joining Temple Beth-El of Great Neck this month. While Stoller is from Texas, his wife, Karen, is from Philadelphia, PA, and has always hoped to return to the East Coast.
“New York presents so many incredible opportunities for my family, for me as a rabbi and for my wife professionally,” said Rabbi Stoller. “In addition to working as a congressional rabbi, I’ve been working on a Ph.D. in Halakhah (Jewish law) at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, which is located in NYC. So to be closer to the college and be in the center of America for Jewish life is an incredible opportunity.”
While Rabbi Stoller has only been in Great Neck since July 1, he already is overjoyed with the warm welcome from the Temple Beth-El community. The temple congregants have introduced themselves to Stoller and his family since his accepting the position as senior rabbi six months ago.
“My family hasn’t arrived from Nebraska yet because my two kids are still in camp and my wife is packing up the house, so I am by myself, but the congregants have really embraced me,” said Rabbi Stoller. “Since I have arrived in town, I have barely had a meal alone. It’s clear how warm and friendly the community is; I am so blessed to be here.”
Aside from providing spiritual care to the congregation and being a presence in the temple community, Rabbi Stoller has three priorities to focus on in his first year as senior rabbi.
“First is to get to know the congregation and professional team at Temple Beth-El and build relationships with them,” said Rabbi Stoller. “Second is to be active in our preschool at Temple Beth-El and help build a bridge between the preschool and broader temple community. And third is to learn more about the culture and history of Temple Beth-El.”
“Those three things are essential for me to build a solid foundation for success,” said Rabbi Stoller.
The Jewish community in Great Neck is strong and diverse, with Jews from all different backgrounds and approaches to Judaism. Because of the diversity in the Great Neck Jewish community, Rabbi Stoller believes his core value of pluralism will be beneficial to growing the community.
“Pluralism is the belief that there can be many different ways to think, believe and practice,” explained Rabbi Stoller. “There is no one right way. No particular approach is better than another and we all have things to learn from each other by building relationships with people who think and behave differently. When we do learn from others, we enrich ourselves and our communities. Being a rabbi in this rich and diverse community expresses many opportunities for pluralism at Temple Beth-El to welcome a more diverse Jewish community.”
To learn more about Temple Beth-El and its new senior rabbi, visit their website at tbegreatneck.org