Stein holding a Torah
Rabbi Daniel Stein is the new spiritual leader of Congregation B'nai Shalom in Walnut Creek.

New rabbi in Walnut Creek ‘a breath of fresh air’

On an unseasonably sunny winter day, Rabbi Daniel Stein of Congregation B’nai Shalom takes a constitutional around his synagogue, remarking on the work his congregants have accomplished in the months since his arrival.

“This brick path wasn’t here when I first came,” he said, pointing at a newly laid walkway that lines one side of the property.

Stein, 35, is quick to acknowledge the achievements of others, yet since taking the bimah at the Walnut Creek synagogue he has taken on a number of challenges himself — both at home and abroad.

Stein is one of 15 rabbis from around the nation participating in the 2016-17 Global Justice Fellowship with American Jewish World Service, promoting human rights and poverty relief. In January the rabbis took a seven-day trip to the Dominican Republic. Their mission: help improve work prospects and a sense of community for Dominicans of Haitian descent who once were sugar plantation laborers but are now a discriminated-against minority; create access to health care and education for those made stateless after losing citizenship in 2010; and establish safe spaces for the LGBTQ community and victims of domestic violence.

“It’s providing concrete skills for rabbis on how to advocate for justice both locally and globally,” he said of the fellowship, which ends next month.

An earnest, thoughtful man, Stein closes his eyes when he contemplates (“sometimes people are bothered by it,” he said). Before his jaunt outside with a reporter, he sat alone in the sanctuary with the lights off, a guitar balanced on his thighs, hand perched above the strings ready to strum.

He’s no amateur when it comes to playing a tune.

Born and raised in Toledo, Ohio, he holds a degree in music history from the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music. Trained on the clarinet, he also plays piano and banjo. He was ordained as a Conservative rabbi in 2010 from the Jewish Theological Seminary, and served first at B’nai Abraham Synagogue in Easton, Pennsylvania, from 2010 to 2016.

Last August, Stein and his wife, Dena, and their two children, Miri, 3, and Judah, 1, made the move to Walnut Creek and the largest Conservative congregation, with approximately 300 member households, in Contra Costa County, according to the B’nai Shalom website. Rabbi Aderet Drucker, now at University of Maryland Hillel, served B’nai Shalom from 2012 to 2016.

While in Easton, Stein founded a new religious school that utilized experiential models of Jewish learning. Though he remembers his time there fondly, he also recognizes the adversity he faced during his tenure.

“They are very different,” he said, contrasting Easton with Walnut Creek. “The social problems are more apparent [in Easton]. You could walk outside and see them.”

He cites methamphetamine abuse, homelessness and low literacy rates among the challenges.

Not that Walnut Creek is without its trials, he noted. “Issues are less on the surface here,” he said.

Recent news events may bring them more to light. Stein said he talks regularly with congregants concerned with increased anti-Semitism on college campuses. He noted that the political makeup of the synagogue is diverse, and the concerns of a few don’t always represent the whole.

“It can be tough to answer certain calls to moral action,” he said. “As a religious leader it can be challenging.”

One way his community answers the call is by collecting items for recently resettled immigrants from Iraq and Afghanistan who obtained visas to relocate to the U.S. because they worked as interpreters during the war.

“My sense is that our commitment to refugees — and especially those who entered in on the special visa programs — was strong even prior to President Trump’s inauguration,” he noted. “That being said, there has been strong opposition in the Jewish community to [Trump’s] executive order.”

The community’s outreach extends to specific Jewish programming, too, explains Stein, such as a renewed energy for early Jewish education.

“There is a great core of volunteers here,” he said. “They don’t just show up; they plan. There are really world-class things happening here because of our volunteers. So that makes me feel good, that we are all working toward a similar goal.”

For Stein, the current political unrest has made him more inclined to seek clarity within philosophical tomes.

“I’m spending a lot more time in the Walnut Creek Library,” he said. “I spent a good deal of time re-reading Heschel and King in advance of Martin Luther King Day. I also read Kevin Seamus Hasson’s ‘Believers, Thinkers, and Founders’ earlier this month, and have been thinking about the idea of God and natural rights a good deal.”

As the rabbi searches for insight from those who came before him, he also finds comfort in the support of the congregation and its new executive director, Alyssa Faulkenberg.

“He is a breath of fresh air,” congregant Celia Menczel said of Stein. “Anything you ask him about the Torah he has an answer for. He’s a mensch, just a really special human being.”

Carly Nairn
Carly Nairn

Carly Nairn is a journalist and writer. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, Mongabay, Guernica, SF Weekly and KQED, among others. She lives in San Francisco.