Steven Exler’s decision to become a rabbi was inspired in part by a man who died long before he was born.
“My maternal great-grandfather was the seventh of seven generations of rabbis,” Rabbi Exler, 36, explained. “There is certainly a sense of meaning in picking up a family tradition. I have a few of my great-grandfather’s writings. He wrote a Haggadah that we use for one of our seders. We have the original text in our family — it’s a real part of our family. … He was a poet and a worldly person and I think in some subtle way it helps me see that to be a rabbi one should embrace culture and be conversant about the world at large.”
Rabbi Exler was elected senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale-The Bayit last July 1. He had joined the congregation in 2008 as an intern under the mentorship of Rabbi Avi Weiss, the congregation’s senior rabbi. He was ordained a year later after completing his rabbinic studies at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, which Rabbi Weiss founded.
“He is my rebbe,” Rabbi Exler said of Rabbi Weiss. “I feel I am who I am today because of him. He is one of the reasons why I went to that yeshiva, but other faculty members and its worldview also drew me.”
Asked if he ever envisioned becoming the congregation’s senior rabbi once Rabbi Weiss transitioned to rabbi-in-residence, Rabbi Exler replied: “The first time I set foot there I loved it. As I became more embedded, I held onto the dream that it could be possible. I consider it to be professionally my life’s greatest blessing.”
He said the congregation’s name is a reflection of what it is — a home to the entire community, whether or not they are members. As a result, Rabbi Exler said the congregation holds two community seders and special services for non-members on the High Holy Days that are led by all members of the rabbinic team.
“We want them to feel that they are not in any way second class,” Rabbi Exler said, adding that the synagogue “represents the Orthodox values that speak to me: openness, inclusivity and emphasizing real rabbinic service to the community and the world.”
Run like the wind: Rabbi Exler loves to run — far. He’s been known to run over 20 miles in one go. “My running mentors advised me, however, that the human body is not built to run 26 miles,” he said.