SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Members of Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange gathered at the Maplewood Country Club on May 31 to celebrate the silver anniversary of Rabbi Daniel Cohen, who has been with the congregation since becoming a rabbi. Staying put for 25 years is a rarity, and Cohen has been at TSTI since he started his rabbinic internship 26 years ago.
While working on his thesis during his fifth year of study, Cohen’s placement director arranged an interview for the internship at TSTI. He had been planning to work at another organization, but when he was offered both positions, he ultimately chose to stay at the temple. Twenty-six years later, he is officiating weddings for adults he met when they were in preschool, and working with youngsters whose parents he knew as children.
“She said ‘You already have the interview, so you have to show up,’” Cohen said of his placement director in a June 1 phone interview with the News-Record. “And I took the internship. I never had any intention of staying; I never mapped it out.”
It was not even originally his plan to become a rabbi.
“I had no intention of becoming a rabbi. My parents laughed when I told them because they thought I was kidding,” he said.
While in college, Cohen aspired to become an archaeologist. At age 17 he had taken a trip to Israel and, a few years later, wanted to find a way to go back to the Jewish homeland.
“To go, I volunteered for an archeological dig and I loved it,” he said. “It really fascinated me; I think history is fascinating, especially when it’s your own. We don’t think about it that much.”
He had planned to learn more about Jewish history and ultimately earn a doctorate in Jewish studies in order to eventually be a teacher, focusing more on academia than religion. But early on in his internship, Cohen knew he wanted to continue on to become a pulpit rabbi. Though he did not ultimately go into academia, Cohen did earn a doctorate in pastoral counseling in 2001. Following his internship at TSTI, the position of assistant rabbi was created for him; three years later he became the temple’s associate rabbi and then a senior rabbi in 1999.
“I wanted to stay because of the congregation and who it was and what it stood for,” Cohen said. “They’ve always been willing to try things. Everyone is really embracing of different types of households. That doesn’t mean everyone is always in agreement, but there is even greater diversity here and every member of the community knows that they are a member of the community.”
He cited several examples of the vibrant community he feels lucky to be a part of at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel. The Americans with Disabilities Act, a federal law that ensures access to buildings for people with disabilities, exempts religious organizations; however, Cohen said that even with that exemption, members of the temple wanted to make the building more accessible for disabled members. The community has also been welcoming to members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
During the last 26 years, Cohen said he has learned from the TSTI community just as much as they have learned from him. There hasn’t been one singular person who has stood out in his mind as a teacher though.
“What haven’t I learned?” he said. “One thing is: If you make a change that disenfranchises people while bringing others in, it’s not as good of a change as you think. The goal is to get more people involved. Rarely has there been a person who doesn’t teach me; I don’t want to single anyone out.”
Cohen has also begun to focus his energies outside the temple, recently working with the South Orange-Maplewood Clergy Association. He has advocated against gun violence and for marriage equality, and has helped refugee families find places to stay in both towns.
“The values that we have matter and we have to act upon them,” he said. “We have amazing leaders in the town and people are involved in so many things. We want to build and strengthen the community, and speak up for the things we believe in.”
He also felt the strength of the community himself, when his wife, Raina Goldberg, left a job in Florida so that he could stay at the temple.
“I can’t stress enough how lucky I am to serve in this congregation,” Cohen said. “I wanted to stay, so my wife left a job and has gotten involved here. They’ve really embraced her, which has been so great.”
Working in one place for an entire career is almost unheard of, but for all that Cohen has accomplished in his career, he made sure to point out that serving a congregation is a team effort.
“I’m really grateful to the congregation for wanting to mark my 25th year and am thrilled that the occasion also allowed us to create a new endowment that helps secure the future health of the synagogue, but temple life is a team effort,” he said. “I get to work with the most amazing group of talented and committed individuals. That includes the entire clergy team, remarkable people, the rest of the senior staff, the volunteer leaders and the entire support staff. We all work collaboratively in a way that I suspect is not as common universally. That’s also one of the things I’m most grateful and proudest of because it is by design, not by accident.”
Photos Courtesy of Daniel Cohen