BJBE Installation Address

Shabbat Sukkot 5769

How do we know what we are destined to become?

Rabbi Richard Levy, dean of the Hebrew Union College in LA, suggests that the quest to find our destiny is like assembling a jigsaw puzzle, without knowing what the final picture will look like.

"All we have are the disconnected pieces of the puzzle," he writes, "and part of the purpose of our existence is to figure out how they fit together."

I did not always know that I wanted to be a rabbi.

But looking back, I see that the puzzle had taken shape over the course of my life.

Our synagogue, Temple Emanu El in Houston, TX, has always been a special place for me.

My great-grandfather, Mose Feld, was one of the founders and earliest presidents. He embodied the Jewish values of family, tzedakah, and tikkun olam.

I never knew him. But my parents always held him up as model for my brother and me of what it means to be a good Jew and a good person.

I remember, as a kid, ducking out during religious school or the High Holiday sermon - sorry, Rabbi! - and running through the halls of Emanu El with my friends......and seeing his picture there on the wall, his eyes gazing down upon me as if to say:

"You are my great-grandson. I built this place for you. Treat it well, and always remember what it stands for."

I felt so proud whenever I saw his picture on that wall. And, to this day, he remains the paradigm of kindness and leadership that I strive to emulate.

Because of my great-grandfather, I have always felt a strong connection to our temple and to Judaism - even when I didn't really know how to express it. But I also had another important connection that really impacted me.

Unlike almost anyone else I knew, I had a permanent backstage pass to the most inner of all inner sanctums; the place many a Jew would pay good money to get inside:

The rabbi's house.

You see, Rabbi Walter is not only my rabbi. He's also my best friend's dad. And since I spent the night over at Ben's house just about every weekend from the time we were in second grade until we graduated high school, I got to know Rabbi Walter pretty well.

Almost like his own children, I grew up observing the life of a rabbi from the inside.

I saw the joy in Rabbi Walter's eyes when he bar-mitzvahed a child he had taught, or married a young woman he had raised....and I sensed the sadness in his heart after he had buried a dear friend.

His ability to touch people's lives in such a powerful way made a lasting impression on me.

But I also came to know him outside the context of his professional duties.

I saw him not as someone vested with divine powers, but as a compassionate, loving, dedicated, and wise man devoted to his people.

He was not a prophet with all the answers, but an individual grappling with the same questions and challenges as the rest of us. I learned from Rabbi Walter that rabbis are ordinary individuals who choose an extraordinary life of service.

When, in my late twenties, I sought to have a more meaningful engagement with the world, I thought about Rabbi Walter, and decided that the rabbinate was the right path for me after all.

Rabbi, I cannot tell you how meaningful it is to me that you are here tonight to install me.

Searching for a job as a congregational rabbi last spring was surreal. Let me tell you briefly about my experience.

For three days last March, all the graduating rabbinic students and all the congregations who were looking to hire us convened at our campus in LA. I had nine interviews over the course of the three days, and BJBE was my last interview on the very last day.

I was exhausted, and ready for it all to be over.

But when I met Rabbi Kedar and Gideon and David, I felt instantly energized.

Unlike any of the other search committees I'd met that week, they were interested not only in my skills and qualifications, but, more importantly, in who I am as a person.

They delved beneath the surface with me, and they really made me think. I will never forget how, after I told my story of why I decided to become a rabbi and outlined some of my ideas for the congregation, Rabbi Kedar - who, up to this point, had been quietly listening and observing - said to me:

"I'm getting a good sense of your intellect.....but I'm not getting a read on your spirit."

OK, I thought. I'll try.

So I dug deeper.....and kept talking.

And then, I guess without thinking, I said to her: "You know, you remind me of my mother."


As my wife Karen put it afterward, that could have been really good.....or it could have been really, really bad.

Well, thankfully she took it as a compliment.

And when I came out here for a second interview, both Karen and I were just blown away by how warm and friendly everyone was.

We visited several other congregations too, but we had no doubt that BJBE was the community we wanted to be a part of.

Ever since we arrived here several months ago, this congregation has well exceeded our expectations.

You have all been so welcoming to us and made us feel right at home. And I want you to know how much we appreciate it. From the bottom of my heart, I want to thank Rabbi Kedar, Cantor Frost, Sandy Robbins, Marc Swatez, our president Gideon Schlessinger, search committee chairman David Wax, and the entire search committee for inviting me to serve as your rabbi.

I feel truly honored, more so than I can express in words.

I also want to give special thanks to Rachel Fersten, who has helped Karen and me transition into our new community and who worked so hard to plan this incredible weekend; and Jill Jacobs, who designed this beautiful virtual sukkah for the bimah. Jill, it is absolutely spectacular!

I also want to tell my family how much it means to me that you are here tonight. I can say, without qualification, that I would not be here without the love and unwavering support of my wife Karen.

I owe the world to my parents, Jeanie and Joe Stoller, who taught me to believe in myself and to follow my dreams.

And I am so honored that my mother-in-law, Joanne Flayhart, my Aunt Carolyn Friedman, and my cousin Lanie Kristufek came all this way to share this occasion with me. Thank you so much.

Before I conclude, let me just say a few words about my vision for my work here at BJBE.

We are in the midst of celebrating Sukkot, the holiday in which we are commanded to build and dwell in huts - or sukkot - to remind us of how our ancestors lived as they traveled through the wilderness.

Now, according to the Talmud, when we build a sukkah, its roof must be made from material, such as wild branches or leaves which, in every day life, have virtually no utility or economic value.

Why? Because, since the material has no economic value, it is not subject to the man-made abuse and corruption that, unfortunately, plagues our economic life. In this way, the sukkah is pure.....a dwelling unlike any other - a dwelling that provides not the fleeting security of material wealth, but the lasting security of the divine.

In short, the sukkah is a dwelling place worthy of God.

Now, if we understand the sukkah metaphorically, we might see it as a spiritual structure, which enables God's presence to dwell among us and within each soul. I believe, my task, my challenge, and my privilege as your assistant rabbi is, along with my fellow clergy, to help our community - and each of you individually - construct this spiritual sukkah.

And here's how were going to build it:

We're going to build it together by continuing to add prayer and mitzvot to our lives........because these are the means by which we experience God and bring God into the world.

We're going to build it by nourishing a kind and open community in which people from all walks of life can come together and experience God's presence in relationship with each other.

And we're going to do it by making lifelong learning an integral part of our communal and individual lives........because with every new insight we gain from the wisdom of our tradition, we uncover a tiny bit more of God.

I have not always known that I wanted to be a rabbi, but over time the picture has become clearer. And I am so excited to share it with you.

Sarah McClendon, the late legendary White House reporter, writes in her memoirs: "It has been a privilege to have lived this life. I cannot wait to get out of bed each morning and start living it some more."

It is with this optimism and fervor that I assume my position as your assistant rabbi. And I thank you for the honor.

Shabbat Shalom.