My friend Rabbi Steve Sager passed away this Sunday at the age of 71 after a long struggle with cancer. Steve was Rabbi Emeritus of Beth El Synagogue in Durham, NC. He was a brilliant scholar and teacher who was also a boundary crosser in many ways.
Steve grew up in Silver Spring and was regional president of USY and a graduate of the University of Maryland. Although he grew up in the Conservative movement he chose to go to rabbinical school at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) in Philadelphia. But he was a Reconstructionist rabbi who served a Conservative congregation and founded an Orthodox shul.
When Steve went to Beth El in Durham right out of rabbinical school, like many other Conservative congregations in the late 1970s there was a fierce struggle over whether or not the congregation should become egalitarian. When it did vote to become egalitarian shortly after Steve’s arrival, some of the more traditional members threatened to quit. Steve convinced them instead to found their own Orthodox minyan in Beth El’s basement chapel. By 1982 the Durham Orthodox Kehilah was a member of the Orthodox Union but it remains administratively part of Beth El. Steve and his successor Rabbi Daniel Greyber would occasionally give sermons in the Orthodox Kehilah and serve its members’ pastoral needs but not serve as mara d’atra, halachic authority. It’s a unique arrangement that as far as I know exists nowhere else.
While serving as Beth El’s rabbi, Steve found time to earn a Ph.D, in rabbinic literature from Duke University in Durham and then served as an adjunct professor in the Duke Divinity School.
I first met Steve when the Greater Carolinas Association of Rabbis (GCAR) had a two day conference at the University of Virginia Hillel Foundation which I directed. The GCAR basically exists to sponsor a weeklong summer retreat at Wildacres, NC, and occasional winter study conferences as well. Despite its name, its membership is open not only to rabbis in North or South Carolina but any rabbi who has ever been to either state or knows someone who has. Steve and I became good friends and for several years we would not only meet at Wildacres but I would spend a week or so staying with Steve and his family in Durham.
As I said above Steve was a boundary crosser -- a Reconstructionist rabbi who served a Conservative shul, founded an Orthodox one, and taught at a Methodist divinity school. He introduced me to two spiritual writers who to this day I turn to frequently for inspiration in my teaching, my sermon, and my life -- the Sefas Emes, the third Rebbe of the Gerrer Hasidim; and Henri Nouwen, the Belgian-born Catholic priest who served as chaplain of a community for the developmentally disabled in Toronto after teaching at Yale Divinity School. Only Steve could come up with that kind of combination.
As a reminder, Joel Wasserman, the son of our members Lori and Robert Wasserman, has been living and working in Ukraine for the last four years or so. Right before the war he relocated from Kyiv to Lviv. He has been volunteering to help others who have relocated due to the war and has been interviewed often by Western media sources as an American who speaks both Ukrainian and Russian. This Shabbat morning Joel will be speaking to us from Lviv over Zoom. His talk will be in lieu of my sermon but so as not to disturb the flow of the service, he will speak right after it ends. I anticipate his talk will begin at around 11:15 or so. You can join us either in person at the shul or over Zoom for Joel’s talk, whether or not you have attended services beforehand.
As always, if I can do anything for you or you need to talk, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 301-977-0768 rather than through the synagogue office. Although I am working primarily from home, I am happy to meet you at the synagogue by appointment. I have been spending more time in the synagogue recently but if you want to speak with me it’s best to make an appointment rather than assuming I will be there when you stop by.
Rabbi Charles L. Arian