When Cantor Steven Stern received the Religious Leadership Award at the annual meeting of the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey on June 7, more than 30 of his congregants from Temple Beth O’r/Beth Torah turned up to share in the moment. They were brimming with pride in him and enthusiasm about his work at the helm of their synagogue.
“He’s just wonderful,” Lillian Makow said.
Stern, who joined the staff of the Conservative congregation in Clark in 1994, took over as leader in late 2007 after Rabbi Michael Klayman left. The congregation, which celebrated its 50th anniversary two years ago, was facing financial pressures and declining numbers. Since then, its membership has stabilized, and the temple calendar is full of activities.
As longtime temple member and congregation president-elect Thelma Purdy put it, “Cantor Stern more than stepped up to the plate.”
In addition to leading the davening for Shabbat and High Holy Day services — and composing or arranging much of the music he uses — he has also been coaching bar and bat mitzva students, leading adult education classes, organizing groups to visit the sick, and undertaking other activities to promote physical and mental health as a means to leading a fully Jewish life.
Stern has also led meditation classes at the synagogue. “In our hyper, multi-tasking culture we all need to be able to slow down and increase awareness, and I believe that can and should be done in a Jewish context,” he said — though slowing down doesn’t seem to be on his own agenda.
Asked about the award a few days later after the federation event, Stern said, “Of course, I was greatly honored to learn of the award. However, I tend to be a bit uncomfortable about such honors. But ultimately, I viewed it as an honor being extended to my community in Clark and so felt I should accept it with that in mind.”
He said that when he was asked to assume the full-time leadership position with Beth O’r/Beth Torah, he hesitated “because of the very great responsibility it entails, and because I had enjoyed my role as cantor.” But the congregants urged him to accept, and he did. He said, “I realized that it would be an opportunity for me to have a significantly greater role in creating and realizing a vision of what this community could be.”
Stern, who has a degree in Jewish studies from Brandeis University and studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, said he always aspired to be a hazan. He grew up in Brooklyn and sang as a child at Temple Beth El in Boro Park with the revered Cantor Moshe Koussevitsky. He also studied cantorial music at the Hebrew Arts School in New York and with a number of leading cantors in New York and Massachusetts.
In a completely different arena, Stern has been involved for many years with the securities markets, and has taught at New York University and the New York Institute of Finance.
Musical and vocal ability are a great asset in leading a congregation, he said. “Music is so central to creating a spiritually satisfying prayer experience, and also is important aesthetically in the life-cycle event experience.
“But ultimately, what matters is that the congregation feels that one has the requisite learning and knowledge, and the ability to transmit it in an articulate, thoughtful, and authentic manner.”
Though not ordained as a rabbi, he seems to accept the mantle with ease. “Learning and ideas were always extremely important to me,” he said, “and I’ve pursued that in a serious way my entire life.”
What he finds most satisfying in his present role, he said, “is being able to be there for my congregants with, I hope, sensitivity and caring at the important moments of their lives, and to be able to help strengthen the sense of spiritual community for the congregation as a whole.”