Temple leader aims to repair Jewish community

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  • | 4:00 a.m. August 27, 2013
  • Palm Coast Observer
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After four years without a full-time spiritual leader, Temple Beth Shalom has officially hired Cantor Zev Sonnenstein, just in time for the High Holy Holidays to begin. The cantor will be ordained as a rabbi in January.

“I’m real excited to be here in Palm Coast,” Sonnenstein said as he sat in his office, which was previously a classroom. A wall draped with prayer shawls stood behind him. “There is a lot of potential here to grow into a vibrant, energetic Jewish community.”

But as the elders have put their faith in Sonnenstein to rejuvenate the congregation, Sonnenstein has also put his faith in the congregation to welcome him.

As an openly gay spiritual leader, Sonnenstein is legally married in the state of New York to his husband, John.

“The congregation has embraced not only me, but my husband, as well,” he said. “He has taken pride in this congregation, too.”

In the three weeks that Cantor Zev, as he likes to be called, has been at the temple, he has already made plans for adult education programs ranging from beginning Hebrew to learning to chant Torah, study of the Torah, Hebrew school and a music programing the first of which is set for Nov. 3 in conjunction with the Jewish Federation of Volusia/Flagler.

“It means that we can take an active role in Jewish life and not just a passive,” Sonnenstein said. “It’s not just, ‘It’s a holiday, let's have services.’ It is an active role in education and spiritual growth, as well.”

Sonnenstein plans to grow the congregation in a liberal conservative direction by incorporating some of the modern music and traditions, but not getting rid of the older traditions.

“I love the music of the synagogue and bringing in the new modern music to bring in the young families and blending the old with the new — keeping the tradition while keeping it young and fresh,” he said. “Without the modernization ... conservative Judaism can grow very stagnant. Judaism is not only a faith, it’s a culture — so that in order to get people here, you have to modernize with the times and make it more appealing so the young people will want to be involved.

“The young people of today are the future of tomorrow. If we don’t have the kids ... sink their teeth into and love Judaism, then we don’t know where we stand.”

Sonnenstein is hoping to create an energy that will bring youth in. A strong youth group, he said, would ensure the survival of the congregation and of the traditions.

In addition to getting youth involved, Sonnenstein also stressed that his doors are open to everyone.

“Inclusiveness has always been something that has been on my heart,” he said. “There should be no reason that anyone turns a Jewish person away just because of who they love. I think that’s important. We are an embracing congregation, an opening congregation, a loving congregation.”

For Sonnenstein, this is not limited to sexual orientation, but also includes interfaith couples.

For him, it’s something the Jewish culture calls “tikkun olam.” Translated, the Hebrew phrase means "repairing the world."

“Each time that we take a step towards tikkun olam, it’s a step closer to the perfect world,” Sonnenstein said. “I tell my congregation to try to make the world a better place one person at a time, one deed at a time. We have to make a difference.”



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