(JTA) — Rabbi Stephen Slater’s rabbinate breaks the mold in all sorts of ways.
Though he graduated from the unaffiliated Hebrew College Rabbinical School, he identifies with the Conservative movement and is the only one of the suburban Boston school’s graduates to join the movement’s rabbinic group.
Though Slater came to the rabbinate as the culmination of a decade of spiritual searching, he has thrown himself into interfaith and social justice work at the Alabama synagogue he has led for the past three years, spearheading the growth of a visitor’s center highlighting the Birmingham synagogue’s role in the civil rights struggle and developing close relationships with local Black pastors.
He’s also likely the only Jewish clergyman in America whose Baptist missionary parents are fervently praying for his return to Jesus.
“I was a frum Christian before I was a frum Jew,” Slater said, using a Yiddish term that roughly means “observant.” “It really was a massive transitional moment when I committed to Judaism and dropped my commitment to Christianity.”
This summer, Slater will assume the pulpit of Agudas Achim in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, a 140-year-old synagogue that is the oldest in the region. He is not the only convert serving as a pulpit rabbi at an American synagogue. Nor is he the only rabbi raised in an observant Christian household.
But Slater may be the only one born into a multigenerational family of missionaries who dedicated years of their lives to bringing people to Jesus — often at great personal sacrifice.
He was raised in Ferkessedougou, a small city in the northern Ivory Coast where his physician father ran a Baptist missionary hospital that his own father had reestablished in the early 1960s. A bookish child more at home reading than on the sports field, Slater imbibed the intense religious devotion of his parents, even taking on a practice of constantly confessing his sins.
But Slater was no more successful at ridding his mind of sinful thoughts than he was of persuading himself of the truth of Christian doctrine. At 17, he had a crisis of faith that led him to a deep exploration of Torah and ultimately to Judaism itself.
“I never reinculcated anything quite as bad as young man evangelical guilt,” Slater said. “That is some toxic nastiness. The amount of guilt that we carried around as young evangelical men — like self loathing for, you know, natural sexual urges.”
The transition would take about a decade. There were years of study of early Jewish history, joining Jewish communities in England and Jerusalem, learning Hebrew and engaging deeply with ancient Jewish texts.
But it all began at a boarding school in West Africa with Slater’s horrifying realization that he had no idea what would become of his soul if he longer accepted the truth of the Christianity.
“I stayed up all night, probably the closest thing to Kierkegaard’s dark night of the soul,” he said. “Just sort of terrified by realizing that I no longer thought that it was true that Jesus was Messiah and Jesus was God. And what did that mean, if I couldn’t be a Christian?”
At first, Slater tried to read himself out of the problem. He devoured his parents’ bookshelf. He went to other missionaries and read their books, too, trying to figure out how to restore his faith.
“It went miserably,” Slater said. “You have no idea.”
He was still wrestling with such questions when he arrived at Hillsdale College, a conservative school in Michigan, where he met Bethany Boyd, another child of a missionary family.
“He was dressed like a missionary kid,” Bethany said. “Like, the dude had tennis shoes that the soles were separated from the front of the top of the shoe so they would flop because he just didn’t spend money on stuff. And he had hand-me-down jeans. All of his clothes were too big because he had such long arms. His mom would just have to buy him like really big shirts to fit his long arms.”
In late-night hangouts, Slater would hammer Bethany and his friends about how God could have made an eternal promise to the Jewish people only to then anoint Christians as his chosen people. Or about how eating pork was somehow permissible when it was clearly prohibited in the Hebrew Bible. Or how Sunday could be the Sabbath when the Bible was unambiguous that it should be observed on Saturday. Did God change his mind?
“I was a nudnik,” Slater said. “I was annoyingly consistent about that. And that really drove me. I was bothering other people because it bothered me.”
Slater had an intuition that the answer lay deep in the past, in understanding how Christianity emerged from Judaism. And that if he could square that circle, maybe he could restore his faith in Christianity.
His relentless questioning eventually precipitated a crisis of faith for Bethany as well, who had gone to teach in Africa after graduation. Shorn of the supportive network of her faith community back home, her commitment to Christian dogma collapsed.
“I feel like the best analogy is a breakup,” Bethany said. “You’ve been in a relationship for a while. And you think that you can just kind of count on that person in your life and that they’re just going to be there. And then all of a sudden, they’re gone. And you just don’t know how to think about your life without them in it.”
Like Slater had earlier, Bethany sought a path forward through intensive study. After graduating, she moved to England to pursue a master’s degree in Jewish studies at Oxford in the hope that understanding how the New Testament had emerged from Judaism might save her Christianity. Over Christmas, Slater came to visit and proposed. The couple made a pact that they would try to figure out their religious quandaries together.
After Bethany finished her degree at Oxford, they moved to Jerusalem so Slater could pursue a master’s degree of his own, in Jewish civilization, at Hebrew University. In Israel, they joined a church and lived for a time in a Palestinian village outside Bethlehem.
But they also immersed themselves in Jewish learning communities. Bethany split her time between working with various NGOs and an intensive course of Jewish study at the Conservative yeshiva. And Slater took a year off from his degree program to do a fellowship at the Shalom Hartman Institute, the intellectual center whose work focuses on the intersection of Judaism and modernity.
As the Slaters began to get a handle on the spiritual questions that had tormented them for years, they found themselves falling in love with Jewish ritual life — especially the observance of Shabbat, which took Slater back to his family’s practice of taking a weekly Sabbath (though that one was on Thursdays).
“We’d been to so many Shabbat tables,” Slater said. “We wanted that. We wanted the texture of Shabbat, a real day of stepping back with people.”
With their return to the United States drawing closer, the conversion question began to intensify. In Jerusalem, where Judaism is baked into the fabric of living, they had been able to live a kind of vicarious Judaism, spending Shabbat and holidays with friends without formally converting. Back home they would have to make an affirmative commitment to Judaism if they wanted the kind of spiritual and intellectual engagement they had known in Jerusalem.
“So as Bethany and I are talking, it was another decision point,” Slater said. “And the question really was do we want to make a commitment and actually be obligated to do Shabbat, or just want to be people that occasionally crash someone else’s Shabbat? And that was pretty clear.”
In February 2010, the Slaters flew to New York City. Both were highly educated and already practicing Jewish rituals, making the actual conversion ceremony something of a formality. The morning after they landed, they appeared before a rabbinical court overseen by Rabbi Ethan Tucker, the president and rosh yeshiva at Hadar, a celebrated egalitarian Jewish learning institute, and then immersed in the mikvah ritual bath. After 20 minutes they were both Jewish.
The change was difficult for both their families. Spreading Christianity is something of a family business for Slater’s family. In addition to his father and grandfather, who between them spent some 50 years overseas doing missionary work, his uncle is a senior pastor at a large Baptist church in Southfield, Michigan.
“Our own devotion to God, and to knowing God through Christ, and believing Christ as our savior and offering his savior to all the world, including all the Jewish people, is still very fervent, and we’re committed to that,” Slater’s father, Dwight, said. “We don’t know when and if Stephen and Bethany would come back to that persuasion. But that is our prayer.”
After the conversion, the Slaters threw themselves into Jewish life. They moved to Los Angeles so Bethany could enroll in rabbinical school, though she dropped out after a year because she liked the intellectual aspect more than the pastoral one, transferring to a doctoral program in comparative theology at Boston College.
Slater spent a year teaching at a Jewish high school in L.A. and was inclined to pursue a doctorate of his own. But concerned about the financial ramifications of two spouses seeking professorships in the humanities, he began considering other options.
“I realized I wanted to work with people,” Slater said. “And I wanted to work primarily — like not in research necessarily — and that I wanted to work on spiritual stuff. And so the rabbinate suggested itself.”
Slater enrolled at Hebrew College, a nondenominational rabbinical school with a reputation for prioritizing the spiritual aspects of the rabbinate. Rabbi Ebn Leader, Slater’s mentor at Hebrew College, said his unique background was an asset rather than an obstacle.
“He came in with more knowledge than most of our candidates, with a better capacity at reading Jewish classical text than most of our candidates,” Leader said. “He came in with a classical training, in classical philosophy and such, and a sophisticated way of thinking. He came in with the deep connection to Israel. Like, he did his homework. And there’s a kind of seriousness about that, which is amazing.”
Leader said he has tried to convince Slater’s father that his son was following in his lineage by fusing his love of God and people as the bearer of a sacred message — thus far unsuccessfully.
“The sense that to be out there in the middle of nowhere, bringing the word of God to people as a way to serve God — I mean, he’s down in Alabama,” Leader said. “That may not be West Africa, but for a lot of our students, it might as well be.”
After his ordination in 2018, Slater headed to Birmingham, a 150-year-old community with about 6,300 Jews, according to a 2016 study by the Birmingham Jewish Federation. There he assumed the pulpit of Temple Beth-El, the only Conservative synagogue among the four synagogues in a city of 212,000 people. Like many Conservative shuls, Beth-El had long been in decline, its membership down to 400 from a high of 750. In recent years, the Beth-El has sought to highlight its role in the civil rights era with the development of a visitor’s center, a project Slater has championed.
In his first year, Slater managed to increase membership by 8% and introduce a slate of new programming. Over the High Holidays, he developed a pandemic-friendly alternative to in-person services, crafting a spiritual walking trail at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens that invited worshippers to follow a path with stations for prayer and reflection. Bethany Slater oversees adult education and the religious school as the synagogue’s director of programming and Jewish education.
At Agudas Achim, where he will start this summer, Slater said he repeatedly told his conversion story as part of the interview process and detected no reservations about hiring a rabbi who was not born Jewish. On the contrary, he sensed there was something appealing to the community in having a rabbi who came to Judaism as the result of spiritual searching.
“It’s kind of an amazing thing that American Judaism — it’s there,” Slater said. “It’s ready for a rabbi who’s a convert, which is no small feat.”
Synagogue leaders involved in bringing Slater to Birmingham say the same thing.
Steve Green, who co-chaired the search committee, said the issue was largely irrelevant. Though some older members of the community expressed concern, he said, the vast majority were enthused by Slater’s candidacy.
“When I see them on the pulpit, it doesn’t even occur to me that they converted because their knowledge of Judaism and of the Torah and the rituals and everything Jewish is deeper than most of the congregants,” Green said of the Slaters. “I don’t see it as a factor at all. And I don’t think that they daven nor do they teach any differently because they converted to Judaism.”
For his part, Slater sees the matter somewhat differently. And it can be summed up in one word: God.
Surveys consistently show American Jews are among the most secular religious groups in America. According to the Pew Research Center, other than Buddhist Americans, Jews have the lowest rate of belief in God among American religious groups. Leader said he believes the phenomenon is a product of Jews seeing the abandonment of God as a pathway out of oppression.
“There’s a deep subconscious rumbling there,” Leader said. “You know, you start talking about God, there’s the Jewish thing that says, ‘whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, you’re gonna put me back in the ghetto. It was getting rid of God that saved me from the ghetto.’ It’s such a deep thing inside of 21st-century Jews.”
Slater doesn’t carry that cultural baggage: He talks about God a lot, with no detectable sense of irony or self-consciousness — and it’s noticeable. Some years ago a friend told him he has “that thing that Protestant ministers have, but it’s Jewish.” Slater isn’t totally sure what the friend was talking about, but he suspects it’s connected to faith.
“This basic sense that it’s not about me, or you, it’s about God,” Slater said. “We’re seeking something together. Spiritual seeker, among those paradigms, that would be the right thing to identify. I do a lot of day-to-day stuff, and managerial stuff or whatever, but at bottom that’s what drives it.”
And Slater is unambiguous that this sensibility isn’t something he picked up in rabbinical school but goes back to the lessons he imbibed at the feet of his parents and grandparents, the selflessness they displayed in spending large chunks of their lives overseas in developing nations, often at great personal risk.
“That kind of faith is just solid,” Slater said. “On some level, there’s no questioning that faith. It does things in the world. It makes things happen that just wouldn’t happen. It actually saves people’s lives. It structures everything. That was a given.
“So interacting with that, I now know that faith changes everything in terms of how you live your life. The only question for me was how to kind of build out the structure.”