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Judaism ‘touched his heart.’ Triangle community remembers Rabbi Steven Sager

The (Raleigh) News & Observer logo The (Raleigh) News & Observer 5/23/2022 Anna Johnson, The News & Observer (Raleigh)

Rabbi Steven Gary Sager, a leader in the Triangle Jewish community, died May 15 from pancreatic cancer.

Sager, 71, served 32 years as rabbi and 12 years as rabbi emeritus at Beth El Synagogue in Durham.

His funeral drew hundreds to honor and remember a man dedicated to teaching others about the beauty, storytelling and poetry in his faith.

“While Beth El Synagogue is 135 years old, the synagogue as it is today — participatory, interactive, intellectual — owes its identity to Rabbi Sager,” said Rabbi Daniel Greyber during his eulogy for Sager.

Sager received his doctorate in Rabbinic Literature from Duke University and served in several educational capacities including as an adjunct professor at Duke University’s Divinity School. His specialty was pairing ancient Jewish texts with modern Jewish poetry and poets.

Professor Ellen Davis knew Sager as a neighbor and colleague at the Divinity School.

His conversations with students were text-driven and never top-down. He genuinely wanted to know and hear what others thought of what was being taught, she said.

“There was something very transparent about his way of being both in the classroom and in the sanctuary,” Davis said. “He wasn’t trying to be in charge. He was just trying to draw people into something that they could love with him. He had a really beautiful way of doing that.”

For years he was the primary non-Christian teacher at the school, she said, and for many students, he would be the first or only Jew they knew in a religious context.

“Jews know much more about Christianity on the whole than Christians know about Judaism,” Davis said. “And so to encounter someone like Steve, both in his commitment and in his openness to exploring that with those who didn’t share it, I think that was hugely important.”

His study of rabbinic figures was so deep, said Greyber, rabbi of Beth El, that he told their stories as if they were long friends.

“He wasn’t just sort of using a name but was telling you about people who were very much alive for him and who he had gotten to know,” Greyber said. “Through the stories, he had a sense of their personality and was able to bring that to life for his students. And that’s very special, I think, to be able to have that deeper relationship with characters who we only know by the texts that are written about them.”

Even in his final weeks, while weak, he still invited colleagues and friends to study with him.

“He would point to one of us or the other and say, ‘On that shelf over there, there’s a book. And if you open it up, you’ll see a midrash that relates to what we’re speaking about.’” said Rabbi Lucy Dinner, of Temple Beth Or in Raleigh. “He had that kind of recall, and that sharp mind, even to the end. It was such a gift and a blessing, that his mind was there so clearly, and that his love of texts just was never going to fade.

Sager had a knack for fostering friendships that could last for decades.

“He made it his business to speak personally to each member of the family, whether it was a 6-year-old, or a 60-year-old, or a peer who was a rabbi,” said Dinner. “But each one he would get to know on their level. And he loved, loved, loved getting on the ground and telling stories with the children.”

He created Sicha, or conversation in Hebrew, meant to provide mentorship and education to rabbis and religious laymen to better bridge the gap between “classic Jewish texts and lived experience.”

His wife, Sabina, of nearly 49 years, said Sager always tried to put his family first in a demanding life as a religious leader and teacher.

“He has touched so many lives,” she said. “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.”

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