WORCESTER – On October 24, Temple Emanuel Sinai will celebrate two milestones: the installation of its new rabbi, Rabbi Valerie Cohen, and its own consecration as a recently integrated congregation.
Congregants will come together at the synagogue’s Salisbury Street campus at 7:30 p.m. for Shabbat services, followed by a special oneg held under a heated tent on the outdoor patio.
“It will be meaningful and beautiful,” says Rabbi Cohen. “It’s about the vibrant future ahead of us.”
The congregation represents the integration of Worcester’s former Reform synagogues, Temple Sinai and Temple Emanuel, each with a rich and varied history. The official union occurred on July 1, 2013 after an intensive, year-long process of discussion, exploration and collaboration.
Rabbi Cohen arrived in Worcester last June from Jackson, Mississippi, where she had been the rabbi of Beth Israel Congregation for 11 years.
Previously, she had been an assistant/associate rabbi at Temple Israel in Memphis. She was born in Cleveland, grew up in Florida and graduated from the University of Florida in 1993. Named one of the Jewish Daily Forward’s 36 most inspiring rabbis in 2013,
she is a 1999 graduate of Hebrew Union College/Jewish Institute of Religion.
As the first rabbi chosen by the new congregation, it is especially fitting that her installation and the entity’s consecration are occurring together.
“It’s a beginning in both ways,” she says. “The consecration didn’t happen last year, and it just felt right to combine the two. Thematically, it’s all about vision and moving forward.”
That said, she jokes that the dual service wasn’t really her idea, but rather her husband, Jonathan Cohen’s.
“I didn’t like it at first,” she laughs. “But I have a very bright husband and sometimes I listen to him. But sometimes it takes me awhile.”
The evening will be a service within a service, the consecration marked by a short ritual that will include speeches by the temple’s co-presidents, Marcy Shuster and Becky Pins, as well as congregant Meg Hoey.
The rabbi has asked the co-presidents to highlight the consecration and to make “an obligatory remark about my installation; I didn’t want that to be their focus.”
Hoey, chair of the temple’s Leadership Development Committee, recently ran a retreat for the board of trustees. She will reiterate her remarks from that meeting, emphasizing the importance of moving forward and “not using a rear view mirror,” she says.
In addition, three clergy members from the former congregations will attend. Rabbi Seth Bernstein was the sole rabbi of Temple Sinai for 25 years. He is currently a half-time rabbi in Columbia, Md. Rabbi Henry A. Zoob, who is Rabbi Emeritus at Temple Beth David in Westwood, Mass. was an assistant rabbi at Temple Emanuel under long-term Rabbi Joseph Klein z’l. Finally, Robin Sparr-Rothman, a former cantor at Temple Sinai from 2006-2008, will attend.
“When we think of a consecration service, we think of consecrating a building,” says Rabbi Valerie. “How do you consecrate a somewhat abstract entity? But we’re not really abstract; we’re a community. Judaism is about ritual, and it’s a ritual to sanctify or make holy the beginning of our endeavor together.”
Marcy Shuster concurs. “In Jewish tradition, everything to be used in the service of God is consecrated, ceremonially marking its holiness,” she says. “What better way to sanctify our new beginning as Temple Emanuel Sinai than to hold a consecration service that is tied to the installation of our first rabbi selected by that new entity?”
Rabbi Mark Kaiserman, senior rabbi at The Reform Temple in Forest Hills, N.Y., will formally install Rabbi Valerie.
A friend from rabbinic school as well as Greene Family Camp, where all three worked, Rabbi Kaiserman had a hand in introducing Valerie and Jonathan Cohen and officiated at their wedding. He also performed the bris and naming ceremonies for their children, Gabriel, 13, and Marisa, 9, installed Rabbi Cohen when she became the rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel, and led Gabriel’s bar mitzvah there last February.
“He is one of our closest friends,” says Rabbi Valerie. “He’s the Cohen family rabbi.”
The evening will end with an oneg among the trees, set up on the stone patio just beyond the social hall on the Salisbury Street campus.
Merilee Freeman and Joan Yood, who served as co-chair and a member, respectively, of the rabbinic search committee, are coordinating the event. They stress that the public is invited to attend.
“We believe that Rabbi Valerie will lead us beautifully on the next step on our journey,” says Freeman.
The Rabbi emphasizes the warm welcome she has received in Worcester, a welcome that intensified when she hurt her knee in a fall and required surgery shortly after she arrived.
Although the injury briefly postponed the out-of-the-gate start she had envisioned for her first weeks at Temple Emanuel Sinai, it also brought her face to face with the kindness and generosity of her new congregation.
Members offered food, company and help unpacking boxes. Neighbors helped out as well, mowing the lawn and offering rides.
“The incredible caretaking this congregation has done for me in regard to my injury was beyond anything I would have expected or anticipated,” she says.
Back on her feet well before the onset of the High Holidays, she is now embracing the task of leading a congregation new to her as well as to its own congregants.
“I’ve been having fun with the challenges,” she says. “We would not have come here unless we were invested in the community, and our plans are to stay for a long time.”
The Cohens immediately bought a house in Holden, and their children “love their new schools,” which have gone out of their way to help them adapt from one curriculum to another. Her son loves working as a madrichim in PaRDeS, the community religious school, and “Marisa loves talking to everyone.”
Jonathan Cohen, who ran the Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica, Miss. for 20 years, is now the executive director of JData.com at Brandeis University, through the Cohen Center of Modern Jewish Studies.
“He is continuing his passion for Jewish youth and education with the added bonus of his love for technology,” says Rabbi Valerie. “I’m so excited that he’s having a chance to grow and be challenged.”
The Temple Emanuel Sinai congregation as well as the leadership is looking forward to Oct. 24 and beyond.
“As our new spiritual leader, Rabbi Valerie has brought a new energy and optimism to our congregation,” says Becky Pins. “We are thrilled to be able to celebrate our new Kehillah Kedoshah, our sacred community, as we embark on Temple Emanuel Sinai’s journey.” n