Michael Stanger will start a position as rabbi at the Old Westbury Hebrew Congregation this month. Prior, Stanger, who graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2001, was an assistant rabbi at the Westchester Jewish Center for five years.
Before attending rabbinical school, Brooklyn-born-and-raised Stanger attended Brandeis University during which time he spent a semester in Israel. He also took a side trip to Poland to see the former Nazi concentration camps, which had a big impact on him, especially since tours of the concentration camps had just recently been opened to the public. It was then that he realized his calling in life.
"Being there and visually seeing the concentration camps stirred something up inside me. I came back saying, 'I just want to do something for my people. I just want to give something back,'" Stanger said.
The then-young college student realized how much the Jewish people needed him and how much he needed the Jewish people. "I couldn't let myself remain Jewish by default. I had to take ownership of it," Stanger said, adding that he realized that if he did nothing, his future children might grow up being less Jewish than he was and he did not want to take that risk.
According to Stanger, being a rabbi has brought him "closer to my people, my history and my God." The most rewarding thing about being a rabbi, he said, is the effect he has on people's lives. He enjoys seeing the many facets of a person's or family's life. He's there to celebrate the joyous occasions such as births bar/bat mitzvahs and weddings and, in turn, to be a source of strength in the hard times. Even in the tragedies "you have a chance to work with people, guide them and show them what Judaism has to offer."
Stanger said there are two tests for a new rabbi - fitting into the community and your family fitting in. "For family, it's the social component of being accepted. My job is not just a job; it's about living in a community and working with and for the community and being a part of it and setting down roots," he said. "It's about feeling welcome and making others feel welcome as well. It's about feeling that the Judaism you love and appreciate so much can in turn be loved and appreciated by others."
In the future, Stanger would like to bring growth and learning to the community and hopes to help them in a profound way "through good and bad." "I would like to encapsulate everything a rabbi stands for today: a teacher, a counselor, a leader, a preacher and a friend. There's a saying in Pirket Avot - Ethics of Our Fathers, 'Make for yourself a rabbi and acquire for yourself a friend.' I want to be there for people. I have the people to affect change and bring people closer to Judaism and I want to do just that."
The Old Westbury Hebrew Congregation welcomes Rabbi and Sandi Stanger and their children to becoming part of their extended family.