Called to Faith: Rabbi finds true calling on second go-round

Called to Faith is a monthly series profiling leaders of local congregations.

August 27, 2011 

Rabbi Steve Kirschner, the new leader of Temple Oseh Shalom, runs an adult education class Aug. 20 at the Palmetto Electric Cooperative building in Hardeeville.

SARAH WELLIVER/THE ISLAND PACKET

  • Name: Rabbi Steve Kirschner

    Synagogue: Temple Oseh Shalom, meets at Lowcountry Presbyterian Church, 10 Simmonsville Road, Bluffton; Temple President Jackie Katz, 843-705-5765; www.templeosehshalom.giving.officelive.com/default.aspx

    Favorite lessons from the Torah: the stories of Abraham almost sacrificing his son, Isaac, and the Israelites on Mount Sinai

    Biggest influence: Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

    Little-known fact: In addition to jazz music, Kirschner also enjoys punk rock. Green Day and Blink-182 are two of his favorites.

    Hobbies: reading and listening to music

After years of soul searching, Rabbi Steve Kirschner has found his home is in the temple.

Born in Chicago and raised between Illinois and Wisconsin, Kirschner dreamed in high school of being a doctor. But when it was time for college, he decided to study Hebrew instead. He became active in a Jewish student organization on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and did a lot of reading about Judaism. After graduation, he went on to rabbinical school at age 22. But he dropped out after less than a year.

Kirschner decided to go back to school at the University of Wisconsin, where he received a master's degree in Hebrew and Semitic studies. He briefly attended Harvard University to get a Ph.D. in medieval literature but said Harvard was not the right fit for him.

"At that point in my life, it was, 'OK, I've done all of this Jewish stuff, and I haven't found a home in it anywhere so I've got to find something,'" Kirschner said.

He said he applied for business schools, law schools and education programs. He was accepted at University of Wisconsin's law school.

After graduation, he took a job with a law firm in Madison and practiced law there for 18 years. About nine years into his law career, Kirschner became interested in Judaism again. It was the funeral of a friend's father, who was a rabbi, that drew him back to the faith.

"Between going to the services and the Jewish reading I was doing again, it sort of rekindled my interest (in Judaism)," Kirschner said.

A few years later he found a small synagogue he liked in Madison. He said his experience there led him to eventually leave the law practice, move to Philadelphia for a one-year study program on the Jewish renewal movement and then go back to rabbinical school.

"In one sense it was coming back to what I had been interested in when I was in college," Kirschner said. "But it was very different, too, because it was a completely different experience. It was a different movement in Judaism. And I was 25 years older by that point."

Kirschner said he was more mature the second time around. He said when he was younger, he felt like he had to either commit himself to everything Judaism demanded or to none of it.

"In other words, I had to do everything -- pray three times a day, keep Kosher, go to services every weekend -- all of it," Kirschner said. "Or if I couldn't get myself to do all of it, then I couldn't be a rabbi."

But when he went back to rabbinical school 25 years later, he dropped the "all or nothing" mind-set and took a different approach.

"The right approach was to do what felt spiritually moving in the movement and then let the other stuff come or not as it would," Kirschner said.

He was ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia in June 2004 and served different roles in the Jewish clergy in Norman, Okla., and Greenville, N.C. In 2009 he moved to Durham, N.C., and has lived there since.

Now Kirschner has taken over as rabbi at Temple Oseh Shalom in Bluffton. Once a month he will make the six-hour commute to the Lowcountry to lead a Friday-night service and teach a Saturday morning adult education program. His contract with the temple is for August to June 2012, but he hopes to stay on longer.

Kirschner said if he had to choose between being a lawyer and a rabbi, he would take the rabbi gig. He said it would be a different story if it were a full-time position, but he really enjoys what he called "very, very freelance" work.

In addition to the part-time job in Bluffton, Kirschner tutors young Jews in preparation for their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. He works with 12- and 13-year-olds through two synagogues in North Carolina. He also performs weddings and funerals, and teaches adult education classes on occasion.

"Even though I'm not making a whole heck of a lot of money these days, I enjoy what I'm doing," Kirschner said. "I really enjoy the one-on-one with the kids ... occasionally doing the weddings. And I think the once a month in Bluffton will be rewarding as well."

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