By Laura Porter
WORCESTER – On March 9, Temple Emanuel Sinai in Worcester came together for its first congregational meeting as a new entity to approve the appointment of Rabbi Valerie Cohen as its new spiritual leader.
The synagogue represents the recent integration of two long-term Reform temples in Worcester: Temple Emanuel and Temple Sinai. They became one last July 1 after a yearlong process of discussion, collaboration and decision-making.
After Rabbi Cohen addressed her new congregation via Skype from her home in Jackson, Mississippi, the group rose to give her a standing ovation and to join with her in saying the Shehekyanu.
She is well aware that balance will be a critical element in the months and years ahead.
“As a rabbi, I can’t think of anything more exciting and rewarding than helping a congregation build a new identity,” she says. “At the same time, I acknowledge that there are inherent challenges in honoring noble histories while creating one unique community.”
Rabbi Cohen, or Rabbi Valerie as she prefers, has been the sole rabbi at Beth Israel Congregation in Jackson since 2003. She is a 1999 graduate of Hebrew Union Institute-Jewish Institute of Religion, and previously served as an assistant/associate rabbi at Temple Israel in Memphis.
Born in Cleveland and raised in Florida, she graduated from the University of Florida in 1993. She and her husband, Jonathan Cohen, the director of Henry S. Jacobs Camp, have two children, Gabriel, 13, and Marisa, 9. In 2013, she was named one of the Jewish Daily Forward’s 35 most inspiring rabbis.
The congregant who nominated her stressed her ability to create a creative Jewish experience in Jackson, including both Reform and Conservative-style Shabbat services. “As the only pulpit rabbi in Jackson,” he wrote, “she sustains the community, bringing together diverse groups of Jewish and non-Jewish people, constantly teaching, learning and growing!”
At Temple Emanuel Sinai, the landslide vote in favor of her candidacy came at the end of a months-long rabbinic search process spearheaded by Merilee Freeman and George Pins. With 13 members, six adults from each of the two former congregations as well as a youth leader, the committee worked diligently to identify the ideal spiritual leader for this critical next step.
The makeup of the committee reflected the demographics of the congregation, drawing across constituencies.
“It included men and women ranging in age from teen to mid-80s, members with young children and those who are grandparents, members who are actively involved in one or more aspects of temple life and those who are less so,” says the synagogue’s co-president Becky Pins, who, with co-president Marcy Shuster, served ex-officio on the search committee. “The members were all thoughtful, dedicated people who were able to form strong opinions as well as to serve as good listeners,” she says. “We truly feel they represented the larger congregation well.”
Ultimately, the committee reviewed 23 resumes and conducted 13 telephone interviews.
From the start, says Freeman, the committee was impressed with Rabbi Cohen.
“We felt that we had a strong candidate who would take us to the next step on our new journey. Her warmth, caring and sensitivity came through the phone and truly captivated the committee,” she says.
Three candidates, including Rabbi Cohen, were brought to Worcester for initial in-person interviews; two were asked to return with their families for a second visit that included delivering a teaching for the congregation.
Afterwards, the search committee voted to recommend unanimously that the board of trustees enter into negotiations with Rabbi Cohen.
“Rabbi Valerie distinguished herself with her strong passion for Judaism, her rabbinic experience and her genuine enthusiasm to learn about our rich histories, as well as her engaging warmth and her great sense of humor,” says George Pins.
The board’s approval of the committee’s recommendation was also unanimous. After negotiations were complete, the vote was brought to the congregation for approval.
“We were thrilled at the overwhelming turn-out,” says Marcy Shuster of the March 9 meeting. “The excitement and joy in the room were palpable.”
The final vote was 182 to 1 (3 abstentions) in favor of Rabbi Cohen. In turn, Rabbi Valerie was charmed by the welcoming nature of the temple community.
“We are so thankful to the members of Temple Emanuel Sinai for inviting us to be part of their congregational family,” she says.
Despite the deep freeze that enveloped the Northeast during her visits, she is delighted by the prospect of moving to Massachusetts. And it certainly did not hurt that the search committee members introduced her two children to snow tubing during their trip to Worcester.
“My family is very happy about this move,” says Rabbi Valerie. “Recently, my daughter, Marisa, complained that change is happening too slowly.”
She will arrive on July 1 and plans to be on the bimah to lead her first service as rabbi of Temple Emanuel Sinai on July 4. “We are thrilled to have her creativity and energy as she begins her new rabbinate with us,” Shuster says.