Rabbi Brian Stoller’s journey from Washington, D.C., to Temple Beth-El in Great Neck is one with pitstops throughout the American Heartland and spurred by a national tragedy which shed light on the importance of life.
Stoller, a Houston native who joined the peninsula’s first synagogue in July, spent nearly a decade in the political realm before even entering rabbinic school. Stoller attended the University of Texas at Austin for undergraduate school, earning a degree in honors business and finance in 1996.
Working on various political campaigns in Texas, Colorado and Illinois, he served as a press secretary to former U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald in the nation’s capital from 1999-2003. Entering the rabbinical world, Stoller said, was not a part of his plan for life until he was approached by a curious colleague wanting to know more about Judaism.
“At that time in my life, I wasn’t really engaged in Jewish life and I found that I wasn’t able to answer her knowledgeably,” Stoller said in an interview. “So I decided that I needed to learn about my own religious tradition a little more deeply.”
Though his enjoyment at working in the political sector did not diminish when he was drawn back into learn more about Judaism, Stoller said, he knew that what he was doing was not his “life’s work.” Jokingly, he said, that “seven years in politics is enough to drive you to God.”
After a preliminary exploration into what it would take to become a rabbi, he said, two incidents occurred that ultimately displayed how vital it is to appreciate life.
“I was working on Capitol Hill during [Sept. 11], which hit very close to me,” he said. “And about a year later, a friend that I had grown up with since first grade died from brain cancer when she was 28. So those two events just made me realize that life is fragile.”
Stoller then pursued his rabbinic aspirations by studying at Hebrew Union College’s Cincinnati campus, receiving his ordination in 2008. He then moved to Illinois to serve as an associate rabbi at a congregation in Deerfield for nine years before his first stint as a senior rabbi in Nebraska.
Now, joining the Temple Beth-El community with his wife, Karen and their children Lindsay and Zachary, Stoller said he is eager to lead a diverse community and cultivate longstanding relationships with so many throughout the peninsula and beyond.
“I am an effective leader because I see myself as part of the community I lead,” Stoller said. “I am good at building personal relationships because I enjoy people and want to be their friend. 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 joy in life and to be embraced by people who genuinely care.”
Aside from the pleasant connection he felt with the Great Neck community when he interviewed for the position, Stoller said it is a “privilege and honor” to be the temple’s sixth senior rabbi in a history spanning nearly 100 years.
“I’m following some real giants in the world of Reform Judaism who have all made tremendous impacts in the New York area and beyond,” Stoller said. “So to come in as the next in that chain of leaders is very humbling and a real privilege to serve this congregation and community. I hope to honor and protect those prominent legacies as I come into the role.”
Stoller said developing and cultivating relationships with congregants and temple staff, building a bridge between the preschool and greater community and learning more about the temple’s history and culture are his three main goals to help build “a solid foundation for success.”
The concept of pluralism, having many ways to believe and practice Judaism, is something Stoller said he looks forward to promoting to the congregation.
“Pluralism says that there are many different paths that people might walk and different ways of thinking and believing, none being better or more correct than the others,” Stoller said. “I’m excited to bring a pluralistic approach to leading Temple Beth-El and welcoming in a diversity of practice and belief into our community.”