I stand before you tonight as your rabbi, as your spiritual leader who has shared so many personal transformative moments with you and as a person who is going through her own period of big change. The last 48 hours have been a whirlwind of activity and I am so grateful to have this meeting tonight so we can talk face to face. As I reflect on the many phone calls, texts, emails and conversations I have had in the last two days I hear in all of them not only your voices but my own as well.
There is such a mix of sadness, shock and grief as well as pride, understanding and best wishes. I have heard from many congregants and a few parents of congregants, from local community members, as well as those in the Yale and New Haven community, from family and friends, rabbis and academics, acquaintances and strangers across the country.
The resounding message that I read in all of these messages is humbling and awesome; I tremble to say it out loud. It is simply this, “Rabbi Cohen you matter.” You matter to me, my family, my Judaism, my learning, my life, my health, my view of the world. You matter immensely. I am so profoundly touched to hear this powerful message. It is not only the hope of every rabbi to matter to his or her people, I think it is a universal craving, expressed or not, that each of us shares. We all want to matter.
And that is what I would like to focus on now. The position I have accepted is truly a once in a life time type of opportunity. Some of you have asked me what exactly it is; others of you understood very quickly the magnitude of this job. As with the current job I am in, it is impossible to reduce to words all that I do and am responsible for, but I will try to give a brief overview.
The undergraduate and graduate student body at Yale University is almost 25% Jewish. This in itself is quite remarkable, given the history of this and many other premier colleges in our nation. Nonetheless, Yale attracts a strong pool of not only Jewish students, but many Jewish professors, administrators, and associated professionals.
The center for Jewish life at Yale is called the Slifka Center which is associated with the Hillel organization but which is also a privately endowed foundation that has incredible resources and does incredible things to promote Jewish life in the Yale and New Haven communities including programs, learning opportunities, trips, concerts, speakers, etc. I will be the Executive Director of the Slifka Center and bring to that position all the energy and skills I have used here to help that community build on its successes and flourish into the future.
The second piece of my new job is Senior Jewish Chaplain. What that means is that each denomination on Yale’s richly diverse campus has one or several chaplains. The chaplains are responsible for the spiritual life of the students and faculty and for cultivating denominational and inter-denominational opportunities on and off campus. There is a need for a strong Jewish presence to be represented at Yale and especially for the Jewish students to have a warm, welcoming and confidential place to bring whatever issues they would like to discuss. It will be my honor to serve the Yale campus in both of these capacities and to lead a wonderful team of talented staff, including three other rabbis, about a dozen staff members, and of course a kosher kitchen and dining hall that has the most delicious chocolate chip cookies which I have personally investigated.
The energy of the students, the brilliance of the faculty, the expertise and commitment of the board, the collegiality of the other rabbis and chaplains, the amazing resources that Yale and the Slifka Center command and the unique position this job represents in the constellation of rabbinic jobs makes this a once in a life time opportunity that I simply could not pass over. I am still amazed that they chose me and I will work hard to meet their high standards and help shape the next generation of Jewish leaders.
But it is not only me who matters. That is what I want to say to every email, every phone call, every person here tonight. Each of you matters, now more than ever. You matter to your own families, but what I hope you fully grasp this evening is that you matter immensely to your temple family. Temple B’nai Chaim was looking for a rabbi when they found me and now you will be looking for a new spiritual leader. How will that person be found? There is a process which we will be talking more about later on this evening. But the key to attracting a dynamic, caring, energetic, committed and mensch like rabbi is by offering a talented person the opportunity to be successful in a community that mirrors these traits. Here is where you matter the most. A good rabbi is looking for good partners to make the dream of a thriving Judaism flourish in his or her little neck of the woods. Now is the time to step up. To paraphrase Gandhi, “Be the rabbi you want to hire.”
Times of transition are full of anxiety. There is a sense of vulnerability at multiple levels – what will happen to the temple, to membership, to my own life cycle event, to the budget, just to name a few. The best way to address these known issues and the many unknowable ones too is for each person to fully acknowledge and embrace their potential for impacting the future outcome. Step up – for the past year, we have needed people for the finance, membership, and ritual committees just to name a few and now we need them more than ever. We will need people to help with the school, help with the rabbinic search, help with the holy days and help with a myriad of tasks. There will be sign up sheets tonight; because you matter, sign up.
And last but certainly not least. When I think back on these 13 years I ask myself is there any unfinished business that I wish I had gotten to before now. Surprising, although there is always more one can do, there is only one thing in particular that stands out. Some people have already been graciously talking about wanting to honor me for my years of service. There would be no greater honor for me than if this community rallied together to care for our Torahs.
There are two critical tasks here. As some of you may know, every few years, we hire a scribe who comes out and “repairs” our scrolls. This means he cleans them, re-inks any letter that have faded, repairs any parchment or stitches that need it. It is time to do that again and I know I would feel so good if this small, routine yet righteous task was made a priority. There is some money set aside for this purpose. Once re-furbished it would be lovely to have a service of rededication of our sacred scrolls. This would be a great sense of relieve to me to know that they are in good shape for our community for years ahead.
There is a second piece of this idea of caring for our Torahs that is larger and is something I would like to present tonight with further discussion to follow if there is an interest in the community. As many of you know, TBC is honored to house one of the scrolls saved from the Holocaust. This is a scroll that has been handed down to every Bar and Bat Mitzvah student in our congregation, it is the scroll that our Confirmands read the 10 commandments from at each Shavuot service, it is the scroll that I show our 5th graders in Mrs. Vehaba’s class as they peer at their ancestor’s words up close for the first time, it is the scroll that is proudly carried throughout the congregation at each Rosh Hashanah as we begin our year together.
This scroll has been a part of the most sacred moments in our congregation’s history. But one day, and probably not in the too distant future, it will need to be retired. When a Torah scroll becomes too worn out, or illegible it is called pasul in Hebrew and it must not be used any longer. Of course one does not, heaven forbid, throw away a Torah scroll. Nor does it have value to sell it. Rather, the appropriate thing for us to do is to find a way to honor and preserve it as so many congregations with Holocaust scrolls do.
The form of what this would look like is not so important to me, whether it is a glass case or a beautiful work of art or some other type of furnishing that houses this scroll. What matters most would be if this congregation who I hope I leave with a deep love and reverence for the words and mitzvoth of the Torah, would find a loving and dignified way to preserve and honor this scroll when its time comes. That would mean the world to me.
Thank you for everything. This is not good bye yet, the night is still young and in the next couple months we still have ten more B’nai Mitzvah, a wedding, an unveiling, a big simcha this Saturday, a few more Friday evening services, a Rosh Chodesh drumming event, and a trip to Israel just to name a few things on the calendar. By the way, which if you were thinking your family would like to go to Israel on a congregational trip led by Rabbi Cohen, this might be a good time to sign up.
I look forward to continuing this conversation and again I want to thank you for all you have done and for all I know you will do to make this congregation continue to flourish and to build upon the legacy I received and I hope I have enriched and now I leave to you build upon further.
May 23, 2013