Rabbi Leonard Sarko is looking forward to beginning his rabbinate at Congregation Emanu-El Israel (CEI) in Greensburg.
“I love the challenge of coming someplace new, of learning about a new community and getting to know the people,” he said. “It’s very exciting. It’s one of the nicer parts of the rabbinate.”
The rabbinate is a second career for Sarko, who was an environmental scientist for 35 years. He’s been a rabbi for about 15 years.
Sarko begins his tenure as the senior rabbi of CEI on Sept. 1. He previously served as the lead rabbi at Congregation Achduth Vesholom in Fort Wayne, Indiana for three years.
According to Robert Slone, co-chair of the rabbinic search committee, CEI’s former rabbi, Stacy Petersohn, told the congregation she was leaving before the High Holidays last year. Petersohn, who had one year remaining on her three-year contract, wanted to “get back into education rather continue as a pulpit rabbi.”
The congregation formed a search committee in October and began the process of looking for a new rabbi.
“We received a few resumes,” Slone explained. “We started looking at both rabbis and cantors and interviewed one of each before meeting with Sarko through Skype.”
CEI president Irene Rothschild said that the next step was to have Sarko come to Greensburg and spend some time at the congregation.
“He came with his wife, Karen, and he did a service for us. Everyone was very, very pleased with his demeanor, his knowledge, his comfort level, his ability to interact with the congregation. He made a very good impression.”
The search committee believed Sarko had both the experience and personality needed at the temple, according to Slone.
“We felt he and his wife would fit in very nicely with the congregation based on his age, experience, children, etc. People seemed to like him. We thought he’d meld into the community nicely. We felt he had a strong Jewish presence that would be good for the community.”
Sarko is moving to Greensburg with his wife. The two have three children: a daughter married to a rabbi serving a congregation in Atlanta; a son living in Portland who works in computer security; and a son who is a Jewish educator in Seattle.
While the family is spread across the country, they find ways to stay in touch. “We have a family custom where all the children and three grandchildren get together for a vacation in the summer,” Sarko said. “We’re a tight family so we Facetime and Skype a lot.”
The rabbi realizes that some may view a city like Greensburg as a challenging location. He doesn’t see it that way.
“Prior to being in Ft. Wayne, I worked with other smaller communities. There are ways to attract membership outside of the core city and be able to service them. Maybe you don’t go into Pittsburgh but there are a lot of little burbs, Latrobe for instance. You can really expand out 150 miles into other suburban areas and attract these people. When my parents were growing up, you moved into an area because your relatives lived there. Now you move for a job. If your job is in Latrobe, guess what, you move to Latrobe, even with no one there. So, the question is, now you’re a Jew in Latrobe, how do you maintain connection with the Jewish community, how do you educate your children and celebrate the holidays? I’ve developed ways for them to do that without traveling 150 miles away. It’s through outreach to Jewish families that don’t have that access to larger communities and that’s something we can do in Greensburg. We can expand the membership that way.”
While he is new to the area, Sarko is not unfamiliar with it. His daughter attended the University of Pittsburgh, and recycling units he developed during his time as an environmental scientist are used by various industries outside of the city.
Despite his new location, one thing won’t change for the rabbi: his football team allegiance. “I grew up in Detroit, so I’m a Lions fan. That’s not an easy thing to do. They haven’t been good for decades.”
Rothschild is certain that Sarko’s personality is the right fit for CEI. “One of the things that impressed me, once Rabbi Sarko knew we would be hiring him, he asked for a list of everyone’s birthdays and anniversaries. His intention is to call them and wish them a happy birthday, a happy anniversary. I thought that was wonderful and so personable. That’s one of the reasons we’re so excited to have him as part of our family.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at drullo@