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Answering the Call

Fitzgerald Staffer Leaves Capitol Hill For Rabbinical School

Unlike many of his colleagues who turn in their Congressional IDs, Brian Stoller is not heading to K Street. Instead, Sen. Peter Fitzgerald’s (R-Ill.) flack is trading in his office in the Dirksen Building for five years of rabbinical school — the first of which he will spend in Jerusalem.

“I am a little bit nervous,” Stoller said. “I have never been to Israel before, but I am also optimistic about the chances for some progress. I think it’s to be expected that there will be rough patches.”

Reading newspaper reports during his final days in Fitzgerald’s office last week, the press secretary realized that one of the recent bombings was blocks from his soon-to-be apartment.

Nervous, yes. But undeterred.

“I’ve always had a latent passion for Judaism,” said Stoller, who has been with the Prairie State lawmaker since his 1998 campaign.

The 29-year-old Houston native said he has been thinking seriously of becoming a rabbi for about five years and began the application process last November, long before his boss announced he would not seek a second term.

“I haven’t known my whole life. It’s a decision I came to after a great deal of thought and introspection,” he said, adding that the Senator, a devout Catholic, has been extremely supportive from the beginning.

The application process tested his commitment. Hebrew Union College, a reform Judaism institute with campuses in Cincinnati, New York City and Los Angeles, requires applicants to complete a phone interview even before granting an application. Stoller then had to submit six references in three categories and complete two essays: a 3,500-word autobiography and a 1,200-word commentary on a Jewish text.

“I really enjoyed that,” he said of the latter essay. “It was intellectually challenging and a preview of one of the great challenges a rabbi has, [giving] thoughtful commentary on 1,000-year-old texts.”

After passing a Hebrew test and interviewing with an eight-person panel at the Cincinnati campus (where he will spend the final four years of his training), Stoller was admitted to the program.

In giving up his career on the Hill for five years of study, Stoller said he looked to his mother, who gave up her teaching profession and went back to school at 52 to become a therapist. “She was a real inspiration to me.”

Although Stoller said his old job and new path seem worlds apart, the two aren’t as disparate as they might seem.

“In one sense it’s a complete career change, but in another sense it’s just expounding on what I do because I am in public service. It’s even more dynamic because rabbis are involved with people in every aspect of life.”

In the long term, he said he would like “to give voice to organize Judaism in the realm of public discourse in America.” Calling it an “awesome responsibility,” he seems genuinely humbled by the challenge.

As for what he’s leaving behind, Stoller said going to work for Hill Research Consultants — which sent him to work on a then-little-known Illinois state lawmaker’s campaign — was one of the most important turns in his life so far.

“I really have always believed that things happened for a reason,” he said, adding that’s as true in his professional career as his personal life. “I was assigned to his campaign, but it couldn’t have been a more perfect fit. I really believe that he is one of the most honorable public servants there is. He’s just such a great guy. It was such an incredible opportunity for me. I feel really fortunate.”

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