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Temple Beth Sholom welcomes new Rabbi Sam Stern

Published: Jul. 29, 2021 at 10:32 AM CDT
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TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - Temple Beth Sholom has welcomed its newest rabbi to the congregation.

Rabbi Sam Stern arrived at the beginning of July to serve Topeka’s only Jewish congregation, located at 4200 S.W. Munson.

So far, he likes what he’s seen.

“I’m very impressed by the dedication and commitment of the volunteers here at Temple Beth Sholom,” Stern said, “who volunteer their time and their efforts to prepare our committees, prepare for holidays, lead music, teach each other and all the things they had to do in the last year during COVID to keep the congregation going, while they were going through a rabbinic search, looking for a rabbi, who turned out to be me.

“I think it’s incredible that they are so committed to preserving this center of Jewish life in eastern Kansas here in Topeka. I have nothing but pride in the congregants here, and I hope I can do them proud.”

Stern says Temple Beth Sholom, which is a Reform Jewish congregation, has a mixture of longtime and newer members.

“It’s a very committed group of people,” he says. “You have a wonderful mix here, where you have some people who’ve been congregants generationally -- for many generations they’ve lived here and they’ve been both Topekans and Jews who are living an authentic Jewish life here in the city -- and you also have new people and young families who are raising very young children here in this community.

“And so we’re really revitalizing in that way, where you’ve got a got a really good mix of people who’ve been here forever and people who are newer, who are really using their enthusiasm and energy to grow the congregation.”

Stern and his wife, who had been living in San Antonio, have found Topeka a welcoming community.

“Honestly, the one thing my wife and I are constantly saying is how nice everyone here in Topeka is,” said Stern, 33. “Not that people in other places are not kind, wonderful people, but we’ve really found that everyone we’ve interacted with, from congregants to cashiers at Dillons to pharmacists -- everybody has really gone out of their way to be kind and to help when they can.”

Stern says he has been impressed with the dedication of temple members to keep the congregation going, especially during the pandemic.

“Temple Beth Sholom takes its position as the only congregation of Jewish people in the capital city of Kansas, and as the center of Jewish life in both Topeka and eastern Kansas, very seriously,” he said. “We work very hard on offering a wonderful religious school for our children, for offering opportunities for children and adults alike to participate in life-cycle events and to really grow and learn here at our synagogue at Temple Beth Sholom.

“It’s very important to us that we be able to offer all of those things, and that’s part of why the synagogue feels it’s so important to have a real, full-time rabbi on staff.”

Services for the past year have been conducted on Zoom to allow congregants to worship from home. When the synagogue reopens for in-person worship, online services will still be available.

“We’re currently transitioning into being what we call a ‘multi-access’ synagoguge,” Stern says, “in which we will be able to have people log in from their couches or come and join us in person, which we obviously hope they’ll do.”

This Friday was supposed to be the first time for in-person worship in the Temple’s sanctuary since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020.

However, rising COVID numbers in the Topeka area and new guidelines issued Wednesday have put those plans on hold, at least until Friday, Aug. 13, when the first in-person service is set to take place in the Temple’s sanctuary.

Though the date for a return to the sanctuary has been pushed back a couple of weeks, the 33-year-old Stern says the congregation is looking forward to being together in person again for services, especially with the High Holy Days beginning Sept. 6.

“I think the opportunity to be back in the sanctuary -- safely, socially distanced, people wearing masks -- will excite many people,” Stern says. “I know many congregants I’ve spoken to have already said ‘We’re very excited to get back to being in-person.’ So we’re very happy to be able to offer that.”

Stern said he is hopeful of continuing Temple Beth Sholom’s participation in interfaith events in Topeka.

Stern, a native of the Washington, D.C., area, attended college at Towson University in Baltimore. He received his rabbinical training at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.

Before coming to Topeka, Stern served at Temple Chai, a congregation in San Antonio.

He replaces Rabbi Debbie Stiel, who served at Temple Beth Sholom for 14 years before moving in June 2020 to serve a congregation in Phoenix.

Rabbi Moti Reber served Temple Beth Sholom on an interim basis for much of the past year.

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