Temple Beth El

Interim Rabbi Douglas Kohn

Rabbis aren’t trained to merge or move congregations, or to build buildings. We are trained to interpret and teach Torah, to console and support lives and families, and to inspire others. But sometimes, we must merge, move, build and transition – and guide the process and adventure in congregational change and evolution.

I expected to manage significant transitions in my congregational work when I was engaged as Interim Rabbi by Temple Emanu-El in 2017, Temple Shir Tikva in 2016, Temple Beth Torah in 2014, and as Rabbi of Congregation Emanu El in 2001. At Emanu El, from the outset I was charged to inspire and guide the relocation of the historic congregation – the oldest in Southern California – from its home of over a century, to newer, greener fields. I had two conflicting mandates: to secure the past, while simultaneously securing the future. It was my task to support the interests and spirits of the leadership and the membership, from challenge to challenge, and from milestone to milestone. Looking back, building a new synagogue campus and relocating a congregation nearly twenty miles transformed me as a rabbi. Initially, it required will, vision and courage, yet it necessitated growing, learning, abiding respect, commitment to partnership, and firmness of character to complete the task.

More recently at Temple Beth Torah in Nyack, NY, although I was engaged to guide a congregational rabbinic transition, the task quickly evolved into guiding a congregational merger with another synagogue. It was a new, unexpected, yet exciting undertaking, and, indeed, a rabbinic adventure. My role continually was in flux – from healer to holder, inspirer to sustainer, and senior guide and counselor. The newly-minted Reform Temple of Rockland is far from finished, yet it is well-launched to becoming a successful, thriving new congregation, and it was an honor to be part of that endeavor. To complete a task, may require nimble flexibility, and self-assuredness.

Then serving as Interim Senior Rabbi of Temple Shir Tikva, near Boston, I was charged to refocus, reshape and reinvigorate an outstanding Congregation, which proved a terrific success, as the synagogue now is flourishing, energized and growing.

And a decade ago I had a significant brush with cancer. After major surgery and radiation, I took a close look at my life. What would I do with this experience, as a person, as a rabbi and as a Jew, I asked? Being an extremely able writer, I opted to turn cancer into text. I pondered, researched, wrote and edited two books addressing Judaism, illness and health, each published by the URJ, and I began speaking on these themes across the nation. In the last decade I have become, arguably, one of our Reform Movement’s key voices on the intersections of Jewish Tradition and illness. To me, Judaism demands that we turn the changes, challenges and tasks of life into hues on the palette from which we color the canvases – or parchments – of our world.

Yes, we undergo varying phases in our lives – professionally and personally. The Jewish life cycle is clear: from birth through adolescence and maturity, milestones mark the flow of our lives, and concomitantly, of time. Similarly, in rabbinic life, we have evolving phases. Years ago, I was a younger rabbi, learning skills and amassing a vocabulary of experience and stories – filling a resume – on which I would rely as my tasks and responsibilities grew, as concurrently my professional positions and duties evolved and developed.

Now, I am prepared for the future challenges which synagogue and rabbinic life and change bring forth. I am fortunate; I have an adventurous spirit. Ever since my Antioch College days when I was, for a while, a hobo jumping on and off freight trains, to later writing books, talking about illness, and building a new synagogue – I am stirred by what the next moment may bring. No synagogue is static; change and possibility are the constants, and sensitively guiding them is the privilege of the Interim Rabbinic task.

Presently, I am no longer the young professional establishing networks and building relationships. Rather, I am now in the very prime of rabbinic life. Instead of collecting experiences and stories, now I am positioned to best guide and contribute that experience to synagogues, to Jewish leaders, and to changing communities.

I have and continue to enjoy a successful rabbinic career. I look forward to continuing my rabbinic work and sharing the skills, devotion, purpose and inspiration which I have gained, with those whom I am privileged to serve.