Rabbi Stephen E. Slater’s journey from the child of missionaries to a life dedicated to Judaism has shaped his approach to the rabbinate, as someone dedicated to teaching, strengthening the Jewish community and building interfaith understanding.
Slater, who becomes head rabbi at Congregation Agudas Achim in Bexley on July 1, was born to Christian missionaries in West Africa. But, despite his religious upbringing, Slater told the Columbus Jewish News he had a crisis of faith. At 17 years of age, he began to feel less connected to his Christianity. While he dedicated himself to religious study to try to regain his connection, it did not work, and he began to search elsewhere for religious meaning.
That search took him to Judaism because, Slater said, “If I wasn’t going to be able to worship the God of Jesus, I wanted to be able to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”
The draw of judaism
Pursuing an understanding of Judaism took Slater to Israel, where he developed his affinity for the faith as he was immersed in its religious and cultural aspects. But, specifically, Slater said there were two factors that led to his dedication to Judaism: Shabbat and mitzvot.
Slater’s interest in Shabbat started as a child, where his family would take a day of rest to spend time together.
Calling Shabbat “the fondest memories of my childhood,” Slater said he decided when he had a family of his own, he wanted their lives to center upon Shabbat. And that is just what he does now with his wife Bethany and their two young children.
The concept of mitzvot presented a sharp contrast with Christianity of prioritizing deeds over words, Slater said.
In Christianity, “there’s a lot of talk about holiness, but there aren’t that many holy actions,” he said. But, in Judaism “it’s the sense of doing a specific action that God wants you to do, that God has commanded you to do.”
For instance, the simple act of washing your hands before a meal as God commanded was meaningful to him and “really healed my soul in a deep way,” Slater added.
Deciding on the rabbinate
After converting, Slater thought about becoming an academic, but a school trip changed his mind. While on a field trip with students at Milken Community School in Los Angeles, Slater was peppered by questions from young students seeking his advice. These students called him rabbi as they sought answers to various questions. That made him realize he had a passion for Jewish teaching and counseling.
“My entire life I’ve been preparing for the rabbinate without knowing it,” he said. “My entire life I’ve imagined working in a spiritual capacity with people on issues that matter to them.”
While he cared about academia, it came down to the simple decision of books versus people, and Slater said the choice was easy – he chose people.
Slater’s philosophy on being a faith leader has been molded not only by his spiritual journey, but also by his experience as spiritual leader at Temple Beth El in Birmingham, Ala. At Beth El, he took over at a synagogue that wanted to bring in more youth and better engage the community. To do this, he oversaw new educational programming, including curriculum that taught about Jews’ role during the fight for civil rights.
In implementing this programming, Slater said he was able to focus on actions that are important to him, including teaching, establishing dialogue among different groups and making positive changes in the community.
Moreover, he said these priorities will help inform his work at Agudas Achim.
Getting to know Columbus
Before establishing any plans at Agudas Achim, first Slater wants to get to know his congregants and what they need. The best way to do so is through Shabbat, he said.
“I’m really looking forward to enjoying the Shabbat community in Columbus, the kind of community where the kids keep playing together all day, where we share meals at different homes and get to know each other as people in a family,” Slater said.
And in getting to know the community and what it needs from its rabbi, listening is essential, Slater said.
“I think leadership starts with listening,” Slater noted, adding that one of the most important questions to ask congregants is what they care about.
Slater is also looking forward to both teaching his congregants and offering pastoral care, with teaching being a lifelong passion for him, he said.
“Teaching is what I love,” he said, including “preparing for giving the d’var Torah throughout the week. I love teaching classes, I especially love the context of a Beit Midrash.”
As for pastoral care, Slater sees it not only as an opportunity for healing, but also for spiritual growth as the congregant “can actually gain some insights into the nature of life, and the meaning of their life,” he said.
Once he knows his congregation and what it needs, Slater said he will begin to explore a potentially larger role as an advocate for positive change in the community. He is, for example, interested in discussing issues of racial equity, interfaith understanding and building up relationships between Black and Jewish residents. Doing so will include building relationships in the community, he said, adding that building collaborations is “kind of who I am. That is what I would love to do.”
But, he cautions that it is important to let congregants draw their own conclusions, bringing the community together through dialogue and not taking on a partisan tone.
“We need to have a moral voice,” Slater said. “We also need to never lose track of the fact that our people are smart enough to form their own political opinions. And we just need to teach the Torah values and they can draw the conclusions politically.”