There’s two recent happenings in Roger Lerner’s life: He’s a new Orange County resident and the new rabbi at Monroe Temple.
Lerner, a rabbi for more than 12 years, was influenced to become a rabbi by growing up as an active member of Temple Sha'arey Shalom in New Jersey.
“My experiences there helped lay the foundation for my present occupation,” he said. “My parents and family played an important part in my path to become a rabbi, so Judaism was naturally a part of our everyday life.”
Previously Lerner was the rabbi at Temple B'nai B'rith in Pennsylvania. While there, its Social Action Committee was very active in the community.
“I am proud of the work I have done on the Wyoming Valley Interfaith Council, the programs we brought to the community, and the friends I made there,” he said.
As a religious leader, not only has Lerner had many altruistic experiences, but he has gained insight as to how religion functions in a modern society.
“The freedoms we have here in America are unique in history since, throughout time, religion has either led a country or been subservient to it, but in America, neither should be true and at the same time, religion's relevance is challenged,” he said. “Reform Judaism bridges the gap between the ancient and modernity, obligation and freedom of choice, and is uniquely suited in today's world to confront the challenges that await us, while not losing our heritage in the process.”
As an applicant for the position, Lerner found the congregation to be incredibly welcoming, warm and open.
“These are important parts of what makes a congregation successful and makes a successful ‘shidduch’ (a match),” he said.
Inspire, teach, comfort
During his first year at the congregation, he wants to get to know the members of his community and serve them in the best way he can to foster growth.
“Monroe Temple has put in a great deal of effort learning about what the needs of the congregation are,” Lerner said. “Much of that was centered on finding rabbinic leadership that would inspire them, teach them and comfort them.”
Lerner has a long, and strong, history of working with diverse groups on a variety of projects, and is excited to bring those skills to the greater Monroe area to make it a better place.
“I wish to continue my work, learning about what is already being done and enhancing it, while also seeing what I might bring to the table to offer,” he said.
'Welcome the stranger, care for the stranger'
This holds especially true to his commitment to social action.
“In my first week here, I learned that Rabbi Rubenstein was leading a protest at the Middletown prison because it was being used as a temporary housing facility for ICE, and in my first sermon that Friday night, I urged those members that were interested to attend even though I was unable,” said Lerner. “I am very committed to social action, but feel strongly that it is a joint effort from me and the congregation. So much of what we do will depend on what we will decide.”
Causes like this are important to Lerner, who hopes they will be driven from the bottom and move up.
“When it comes to immigration, one of the things we are taught in the Bible is that we are supposed to ‘welcome the stranger,’ ‘care for the stranger’ and even ‘love the stranger,’” he said. “Undocumented immigrants are the epitome of the biblical stranger and we are not only failing them, but we are failing to live up to the basic principles of human rights, and the basic rule of law—we can do better and we ought to do better.”
This plays into one of Reform Judaism's cornerstones, “tikkun olam,” which means repairing the world.
“We don't believe that an individual messiah is coming to save us, rather that each of us plays a part in bringing about the idea of messianic redemption—that each of us, working together, can make this world better for all of us,” said Lerner.
As much as a temple serves its members and works to ensure that they are taken care of, Lerner plans to continue Monroe Temple's long history of serving the greater Monroe community.
“Whether it's regarding food insecurity, housing, defending the rights of the ‘strangers’ among us and so on,” he said. “Every day, I get to wake up and meet people from all walks of life, from young to wise in years, and serve, and that is my favorite part about being a rabbi.”
Opportunities for the greater community
In his new position, Lerner is most looking forward to meeting and talking with the members of the community. They have stories to tell and he wants to learn about who they are and how they got here so he can serve them better.
“In my opinion, another foundation of Judaism, and religion in general, is relationships,” he said. “This happens when we create opportunities for the greater community to get together and learn from one another about who they are and what they believe. We can do that, even when we disagree about even the most fundamental of issues.”
Lerner hopes to enhance the sense of community that Monroe already has and to continue the strong foundation of community that has been built. To him, the most rewarding thing about being a rabbi is when he can shine a light into darkness for people.
“When I can bring joy to the hearts of children, when I can inspire people to be more than they ever thought possible,” added Lerner, “when I can make a small difference in people's lives, making them better, then my heart truly soars.”
“The freedoms we have here in America are unique in history since, throughout time, religion has either led a country or been subservient to it, but in America, neither should be true and at the same time, religion's relevance is challenged."
Rabbi Roger Lerner