Temple Shalom of Central Florida is welcoming Rabbi Zev Sonnenstein, its new rabbi and spiritual leader. He conducted his first Shabbat service on Friday, Feb 8.
“I was drawn to Temple Shalom because of the warmth of the people, their love of Judaism and their love of music,” said Sonnenstein.
Music is important to the rabbi.
“I think music is one of the keys to spirituality,” he said. “It allows us to express what we are feeling without having to feel shy. I always select the music to fit the text.”
Growing up in Muncy, N.Y., Sonnenstein sang in the temple choir.
“I remember really becoming enthralled with the music in the fourth grade,” he said. “The cantor became like my second dad.”
Sonnenstein has been in Florida for 18 years, previously in Palm Coast and Ormond Beach. He is looking forward to the challenge of growing Temple Shalom and sharing some of his passions with the congregation.
“I feel strongly about giving back to the community and making the community part of our daily lives,” he said. “Judaism is about helping others. The expression ‘We are our brother’s keeper’ can sometimes seem overused, but it is true. We are here to help the less fortunate – the orphans, widows, the unadopted pets and children in the foster system.”
Sonnenstein has a ritual he performs every Friday before Shabbat. He goes to an area where there are vagrants and makes sure everyone has food. He then goes to a local animal shelter.
“I give some loving to the senior dogs,” he said. “Everyone wants to pet the puppies, but I make sure the often-ignored senior dogs feel some love.”
Sonnenstein has started programs to help the less fortunate. His trick or treat for canned goods to replenish local food pantries has been going for 15 years. He also started a drive during the holidays to collect gift cards for teenagers.
“People are aware of Toys for Tots and other programs that collect for the younger children, but I saw a need to do something for the teenagers,” he said. “We collected the cards and distributed them to needy families.”
Sonnenstein looks forward to starting similar programs here, including festivals and pet blessings. He was one of the founders of the Jewish Heritage Festival in Daytona Beach.
“We draw over 10,000 people to that festival, and it is a one-day festival,” he said.
Sonnenstein doesn’t consider being a rabbi a job, saying “it is a calling, a privilege.” He was inspired by his rabbi and cantor when he was growing up, seeing what a difference they made in people’s lives.
“I still think sometimes what would they do when I am making a decision,” he said. “They are my role models to this day.”
Sonnenstein also is a very approachable person. He is looking forward to getting to know all of the congregants. And he’s also looking forward to getting to know everyone in the local community.
“I want to share with those I meet what a loving, vibrant and inclusive community we have at Temple Shalom,” he said. “Everyone is welcome.”
Temple Shalom, located at 13563 County Road 101 in Oxford, holds services every Friday evening at 7 p.m.