Rabbi Michael Cohen, who officially became rabbi of Central Synagogue-Beth Emeth (CSBE) on July 1, knew that a rabbinical career was his calling since his teenage years.
When Cohen was a 15-year-old growing up in Nashville, T.N., his father, Neil Cohen, was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. For the next year and half, Cohen bonded with his dad as they studied Judaism. It helped them both make sense of his illness, Cohen said.
Cohen’s father died at age 54 in 2001. Cohen, now 35, remembers that near the end of his life, his father said to him, “Could you imagine doing this for a living? If I were able to go back and do it all over again, I would have become a rabbi.”
From then on, Cohen thought that, yes, being a rabbi seemed a great way to spend his life.
This story, along with his strong background as a U.S. Army Chaplain and bountiful ideas, impressed CSBE co-presidents Elinor Appel and James Gelman as they and 18 others on the rabbinic options committee searched for a new rabbi, preparing for Rabbi Marc Gruber and Rabbi Elliott Skiddell’s retirements in June.
“He impressed us with his innovative, out-of-the-box thinking,” Gelman said, “which we think is very important going forward with our institution.”
Appel noted that she was drawn to Cohen’s plans for outreach in the community. “People will know and find out about us through his ability to get out there more,” she said.
Cohen earned his bachelor’s degree from Brandeis University in 2007, then joined the U.S. Army in psychological operations. In 2012, he became an army chaplain, leading religious services that gathered about 800 soldiers and their families.
Meanwhile, he also received rabbinical education from Hebrew Union College’s Jewish Institute of Religion and was officially ordained in 2017.
As a religious leader in the military, Cohen led interfaith services and taught Jewsh continuing education classes to adults. Part of his mission was to bring spiritual counseling to those who had faced combat and were experiencing trauma. He admitted that, though national service is important to him, this task was a challenging one, and he is welcoming the transition to becoming a rabbi at an established synagogue.
“Wherever I went as a rabbi, I was just about the only Jew there, and the community would only be formed if I created it,” he explained. “It gets exhausting to try to create and recreate. People come in and out of the military, and constantly trying to corral people was very difficult.
“It's a lonely and thankless endeavor,” he continued. “At some point, I said, ‘I’d love to go to a lovely Jewish community that really wants me, [as opposed to being] where people didn’t know they need me.’”
Cohen visited CSBE for a few days in early March. With a packed schedule, he engaged congregants through Torah lessons, discussions and other gatherings to meet with the CSBE community.
Then, members of the congregation voted, virtually, for whether they would accept Cohen as their rabbi. All members were encouraged to vote, and the vote overwhelmingly passed.
Due to coronavirus, however, Cohen is not yet living in Rockville Centre. He is still at his home, near the army base in Savannah, G.A., where the Department of Defense has closed down and not yet discharged him because operations are on pause.
As he awaits his discharge, he has been holding Friday evening and Saturday morning services with CSBE via Zoom video conferencing. While he feels this is not ideal, “it’s the best option we have right now,” he said.
Cohen has a girlfriend, Keeley Haysman, and a 3-year-old son, Neil, named after Cohen’s father.
Upon arriving at CSBE, which he hopes will be soon, Cohen plans to engage with the larger community and has ideas for interfaith programs.
“I love challenges,” he said, noting that Covid-19’s impact will pose challenges going forward. “I’ll be finding ways to make the synagogue relevant and provide to meet needs that the community hasn’t met. Synagogues and Judaism can offer a lot if you're looking.”