Rabbi Steven G. Sager, Rabbi Emeritus of Beth El Synagogue in Durham and founding director of Sicha (Hebrew, Conversation), died on May 15.
A much beloved rabbi for 32 years and rabbi emeritus for 12, Rabbi Sager’s outreach extended beyond his Durham congregation through Sicha, a project that he created and led that aspired to “stimulate conversations between classical Jewish culture and contemporary Jewish needs” among lay people and his rabbinic colleagues across denominations.
A native of Silver Spring, Maryland, Rabbi Sager received ordination from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, later earning a Ph.D. in Rabbinic Literature at Duke. As a teacher and mentor, his influence both embraced and transcended Jewish movements. A Reconstructionist rabbi at a Conservative congregation, he encouraged the formation of an Orthodox Kehillah that met in a synagogue chapel. Beyond the RRC, he taught and advised students and graduates at Hebrew Union College, The Jewish Theological Seminary, and the Rabbinical School of the Boston Hebrew College. He held faculty appointments at Duke Divinity School, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and the University of North Carolina Medical School. He was also a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute, serving its Advisory and Havurah programs. He was president of both the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association and the Greater Carolinas Association of Rabbis, where he co-directed its Interfaith Institute. He was well published in both academic and religious literature and was a frequent Scholar in Residence.
Rabbi Sager expressed his spirituality through poetry—a verse from Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai was perpetually on his lips—and was a gifted musician and champion swimmer.
“He has touched so many lives,” Sabina Sager, his wife of 49 years, told the Raleigh News & Observer. “But what was underneath all that was, you know, a guy from Silver Spring, Maryland, who grew up in a non-traditional house but found a spark that spoke to him. I don’t know if you say it’s a calling, but it was something that touched his heart about Judaism, about the Hebrew language, about building a community from a very early age.”
Rabbi Sager was appreciated as an engaged listener whether studying in a beth midrash with rabbis or sitting on the floor with children.
Even in Rabbi Sager’s final days, while weakened by pancreatic cancer, rabbinic and lay visitors alike found him spirited and exuberant, eager for conversation or to pull a text from a shelf.
To continue the conversation with Rabbi Sager, click here.
Photo courtesy of Anna Carson DeWitt