SPRING HILL — For the first time in its history, Temple Beth David is getting a full-time rabbi.
Rabbi Lenny Sarko, and his wife, Karen, will settle into their new home in Spring Hill on Wednesday. The rabbi will begin leading Shabbat services July 22.
"We're very excited that Rabbi Lenny, as he prefers to be called, and Karen will be actually moving to the community," said Marlene Praglor, who headed the search committee. "They will be serving full time, which is very new to us."
Diane Paskowitz served as lay rabbi for the temple until her retirement in 1990 and was there in 1986 when the first temple building was erected on Antelope Street. Four ordained rabbis followed. Rabbi Saul Besser was the first, serving until his death in 1996. Rabbi Frank Sundheim was serving the congregation when additional facilities were built in 1998. Rabbi Cyrus Arfa, the current rabbi emeritus, served from 2000 to 2006. Rabbi David Levin served until April of this year. Each served on a part-time basis.
"The drawback was that none of them lived in town," Praglor said. "They all lived elsewhere in the Tampa Bay area. So we're feeling that having a rabbi here will bring wonderful things for the future growth of the temple and that he'll have time to devote to reaching out to members of the community that have not been to our temple."
Sarko, 56, believes a rabbi needs to live in the community he is serving. He thinks Spring Hill is an ideal location for that commitment and has already purchased a home.
"One of the questions the congregation asked me was if a member wants access, will you be around?" Sarko said. "I told them I am making a full-time commitment, 100 percent directed toward activities at Temple Beth David. I'm basically gearing back all my other activities to concentrate on building out the base of the synagogue, which is what I would like to do at this point in my life."
Praglor also likes the idea of having a rabbi who can visit members in their homes and when they're in the hospital, in rehabilitation centers or in nursing homes.
"He wants to reach out to every member of the congregation several times a year," she said. "He told us when things are bad you get a call from the rabbi, but he wants to call them when things are fine and ask how they are doing and know that he is thinking about us — things that a part-time rabbi would never have time for."
He has a multi-faceted academic background
Sarko's credentials, which include master's degrees in Jewish studies and in education, were a part of his attraction, Praglor said.
"He's also very big in education, and he'll be offering a lot more in the line of adult education. He'll be able to be an adviser to our religious school since he is getting, shortly, a Ph.D in education (at Ohio State University). We also feel it's important for him to advise us with committees. He'll have time to devote to meeting with the leaders of the congregation to help it get stronger and hopefully grow."
The father of three and grandfather of two, Sarko spent the past 25 years in Columbus, Ohio. While he has done Judaic teaching for about 35 years in schools, synagogues, churches and other locations, his rabbinical work only covers the past five.
"Prior to doing rabbinical work, I was involved with a startup internet company," Sarko said. "I've had a varied background. My original degree was from Michigan State in the sciences, and I have patented such things as hazardous waste recycling systems. I've always been involved in the Jewish side of life. In actually making a living, I've done some different kinds of things."
As a rabbi, Sarko has served as a spiritual leader for congregations in Ohio, and also has provided services for Jewish inmates in correctional institutions.
He has designed a set of 54 interactive CDs for bar and bat mitzvah students, regularly uses social media for one-on-one conferencing and has composed and distributed a series of short stories titled "Modern Midrashim."
It's all about family, a community feel
Karen Sarko has also been involved in Jewish life and spent 15 years as a rabbi's assistant in Ohio.
"She likes synagogue and synagogue life," Lenny Sarko said. "She will absolutely be part and parcel of the package."
Praglor is glad that Karen Sarko wants to be a part of the temple's sisterhood and other synagogue endeavors.
"We think it's absolutely essential and are thrilled that Karen is very eager to be involved in every way," Praglor said. "We're delighted with that."
Lenny Sarko said with people being spread out due to a slow economy and sometimes having to find jobs in remote areas, he hopes to take Temple Beth's David's boundaries beyond Spring Hill.
"I hope to kick off an online Jewish Hebrew school," he said. "It's going to be a combination of weekly live sessions along with non-live sessions for people who are not affiliated. The idea is to provide services to people who may be 50 or 60 miles away and unable to go to weekly or biweekly religious school. I can go there for life cycle events, and they can come to the synagogue for high holidays. So we can extend out. It builds community in a little bit different way."
The synagogue needs to change with the times, Sarko said.
"The way synagogues operated in the '50s, '60s and '70s just doesn't work as a business model anymore," he said. "But at the same time, you need to keep your foundational values and your mission statement. There's no reason that can't be done and yet extend out the geographical reach of the synagogue. I'm very much into education and the Internet. That's kind of what I'm bringing to the table."
Sarko also plans to reach out to the local community, making sure interfaith couples know they are welcome.
"My wife and I are very community oriented, very family oriented," he said. "My real hope is to grow the synagogue and its involvement in the community at large. I take a very welcoming approach."