Rabbi Stoller

Q&A with Brian Stoller

    1. At what point in your life did you want to become a Rabbi and why?

      I had never thought about becoming a rabbi until I was 25 years old. I was working on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., and I had a friend in my office, a devout Christian, who would frequently ask me about Judaism. When I found that I was unable to answer her questions as well as I would have liked to, I determined that I needed to learn more about my religion. So I began to study – reading books, taking adult education classes – and I found that the more I learned, the more I loved it and the more I wanted to know. Soon I started thinking to myself that someday I may like to study to become a rabbi – someday, but not now.

      Then, on September 11, 2001, tragedy struck very close to home. After watching the Pentagon burn from my office window, I knew that the time had come to make a change in my life. While I loved my career in politics, I yearned in my core for a more meaningful engagement with the world. Before, I had figured that I would tend to those feelings later; but now, having seen how truly fragile life is, I decided that, if there was something that I wanted to do with my life, I should not wait any longer; I should do it now. Feeling a deep inner need to grow intellectually and spiritually and to touch the lives of others, I decided, finally, to enter rabbinic school in the summer of 2003, at age 29.

    2. What do you see as two or three of the most important aspects of Jewish life?

      I believe strongly in the overarching Reform principle of “informed choice,” meaning that it is incumbent upon every Reform Jew to create his or her own mode of Jewish living and practice on the basis of knowledge of the tradition. Therefore, I believe that lifelong learning is essential to a meaningful and engaged Reform lifestyle; after all, we cannot make informed choices about our religious practice if we are uninformed.

      It is not enough, however, to learn and to know; if we are to create meaningful Jewish lives, I believe that we must build lives of prayer and observance. I hope to help our community explore the tradition and experience prayer and observance as the means by which we bring God into the world and into our lives.

      The construction and nourishment of a community in which prayer, learning, and the performance of mitzvot can take place is essential. While private devotion is surely important, Jewish living is, in its essence, a communal activity. I believe that my task as a rabbi is to lead a collective effort to construct a vibrant community in which individuals from all walks of life can come together and experience the divine presence in relationship with each other.

    3. What is your vision in this new position?

I believe strongly in BJBE’s vision of an open and loving community that is committed to serious lifelong learning (Torah), the creation of opportunities to encounter the divine through prayer and interpersonal interactions (Avodah), and a meaningful engagement with our world through deeds of kindness (G’milut Chasadim). I am excited about the new building because I am confident that this new space will enable this kind of community to flourish. My aim, as the incoming Assistant Rabbi, is to do everything I can to help Rabbi Kedar and the congregational leadership make this vision into a reality. I look forward to creating new and exciting learning opportunities for people of all ages, to helping the social action programs that Rabbi Linder and others have built to continue to flourish, and, generally, to participating in all aspects of community life.

    1. Can you give us a little background of your previous career in politics? What role will that have in your new career?

Before entering rabbinic school, I spent seven years in politics, including four-and-a-half years in Washington, D.C. as press secretary to U.S. Senator Peter Fitzgerald of Illinois. Though I was only in Washington for a relatively brief period, I served during some of the most momentous events in recent American political history: the Clinton impeachment trial, the Florida recount, September 11, the congressional investigation into the collapse of Enron, and the debate over whether to go to war in Iraq.

Working for Senator Fitzgerald was truly a privilege and an honor. He is a man of great integrity and principle, and I am fortunate to count him as a mentor and as a friend. I have observed many officials who have lost sight of their purpose, but he taught me the true meaning of public service – a value which I carry with me into the rabbinate.

While I bring many professional and life lessons I learned from my political career into my new work, politics does not inform my vision of the rabbinate. My role, as I see it, is to teach Judaism – to help people become more learned committed Jews, to empower them to find Jewish meaning in their lives, and to help the congregation create and sustain an open and caring community.

    1. What do you do for fun?

I am a pretty low-key person. My idea of fun is relaxing at home with my wife, Karen, or having dinner with friends. I also love to read, especially anything and everything there is to be read about politics. (Yes, for me, that is truly fun!) Karen will tell you how much she cherishes those rare moments in our house when at least one television is not tuned to MSNBC or Fox News!

    1. What is your favorite movie and why?

I hesitate to tell you because I don’t want to come off as a nerdy rabbi-guy – but the truth is, my favorite movie is “The Ten Commandments,” starring Charlton Heston and Yul Brenner. When I was 10 years old or so, my parents recorded it for me when it came on television, and I used to watch the first two hours of the movie every day when I came home from school – and I mean every day. Consequently, I pretty well know the first half of the movie by heart. I think I have always loved the movie because of the great drama, the cool characters, and the incredible costumes. And, of course, those Commandments aren’t bad either.

    1. What prior life experiences that you have had could you share with the Congregation that could help us understand who you are on a personal or spiritual level?

The most defining experience of my life is one, ironically, that I do not remember. When I was five years old, I was stricken with a severe case of meningitis that sent me into a coma for four days and almost cost me my life. The doctors told my parents that if and when I did come out of the coma, I would probably be deaf and/or have some other permanent disabilities.

By some miracle, though, I came out of the coma in perfect health! Though I don’t remember those perilous days, the knowledge that I survived my bout with meningitis has defined my being and my becoming, and infused my life with meaning. I emerged from the darkness, and I was given another chance to live.

I think about this experience every day. Each morning when I pray upon waking, I thank God for granting me a second chance at life and ask for the strength and wisdom to make the most of it. I feel that this experience demands of me that I use this second chance to make a meaningful impact on others and on the world, and I know that, on some level, my experience at age five has propelled me to and prepared me for the rabbinate.

    1. What do you feel are the most important things that we, as a Jewish community, need to teach our children?

I would like our children to experience Judaism not as an activity that we do only on Saturdays and holidays, but, rather, as a way of living and thinking that is relevant to and can inform every aspect of daily life. It is our responsibility, I believe, to teach our children that by participating in a Jewish community, by practicing Judaism in the home as well as in the synagogue, by thinking Jewishly about the ethical choices we make daily, and by learning to search for God in the ordinary, we can add meaning and value to our lives.

    1. Tell us a little about your family and upbringing?

Family has always been the most important part of my life. My parents Joe and Jeanie Stoller, my younger brother Brent, and I have always been and remain very close; though they all live in Houston, I talk to them frequently and visit often. We are all very much a part of each other’s lives. I am also very fortunate to have a wonderful grandfather, the patriarch of our family, and many aunts, uncles, and cousins, all of who are important parts of my life.

When I was growing up, our whole family – aunts, uncles, and cousins – got together for dinner every Sunday night at my grandparents’ house, for which my grandfather would cook one of his numerous creative concoctions. (We weren’t always sure what it was, but it always tasted good!) Today, though many of us live in different cities, our whole family gathers every year in Austin for Thanksgiving. No matter where we are, all of us do our best to be there to celebrate together.

Now, I am fortunate to be a member of not just one family, but two. Since Karen and I married in 2006, I have gained two new parents, a sister- and brother-in-law, and two adorable nieces, Madeline and Caitlin.

    1.  If you could give us 2 things that you are passionate about for your rabbinate what would they be?

First, I believe, as Isaac Mayer Wise did, that the rabbi is, above all else, a teacher. The rabbi’s charge, as stated on our ordination certificates, is Yoreh, yoreh – which means, “Let him teach, let him teach continually.” Teaching Torah is my passion and my greatest strength as a rabbi. I cherish and crave opportunities to challenge others to think in new ways and to help them learn to love the intellectual and spiritual experience of study. With every new insight we gain from the wisdom of our tradition, we uncover the tiniest bit more of God; by engaging our minds in study, we bring God into our souls.

Second, I am passionate about building a community in which all members feel confident and empowered to participate fully in Jewish life, both in the synagogue and at home. As Assistant Rabbi at BJBE, I hope to help our members gain the knowledge and the comfort level they need in order to find meaningful experiences in prayer, Torah study, social action, and caring for others. In short, my passion – and my obligation – is to do everything I can to help others become knowledgeable, engaged Jews who can actively participate in and impact the community and share the beauty of Judaism with the next generation.