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A Second Act, Again: Reflections of a New Hillel Rabbi

When I left the corporate world as a director at 33 many people wondered why.  I was climbing the ladder, had a great job, good reputation, excellent track record and an exciting life. But my desire to become a rabbi trumped all that and I made a big change to start a “second career.” I not only left my job, I left my entire way of life and my community.  I completely changed my identity from executive expat to start on the path of becoming a Reform rabbi.  After five years at HUC-JIR and 13 years in a wonderful congregation in a small town in Connecticut I had transformed into a congregational rabbi with a solid reputation, a loving community and a sense of accomplishment topped by a beautiful new building. Many would have thought that this would be the time to reap the rewards of one’s hard work and simply enjoy the life I have created. But once again, I have managed to turn my life upside down.

Last month I accepted the position of Executive Director and Senior Jewish Chaplain of Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish life at Yale. This is a Hillel on steroids, with one of the largest staff, budget and scope of activities of any Hillel situated on one of the most prestigious campuses in the world with mind boggling students, faculty and resources. In the same month, I also led a trip to Israel, had rotator cuff surgery, put my house on the market, said good bye to my dear congregation, started my new job at Yale, and prepared to send my first and only child to college.  

Why? Depends on who you ask.  If you ask my all-knowing daughter she would say, “That is what my mom does.  She just does things that don’t seem normal.”  Others might point to the incredible opportunity that this position represents.  Those who know me from my congregation would quickly answer that our rabbi loves working with young people.  Some might find deep psychological explanations dealing with the empty nest syndrome. 

I think of all the responses I have gotten from people the one that had the biggest impact on me was the person who said, “This is really courageous”.  What struck me about his remark was that I had never thought of this decision or any decision I have made as courageous.  I think I am simply being normal. This is what normal means to me- challenge yourself, keep growing, live as if Judaism matters because it does, love people (imperfections and all), carpe diem, try, then try harder, know that you are not alone. 

Growing up, our family’s two core values were adventure and education.  As a family of six we lived and traveled all over the world and my parents were great teachers.  I think a final piece of my legacy that has impacted my decision is that I am now three years older than my sister was when she died, and almost the same age as my mother when she died.  My father also died in his fifties.  So this too I have learned and internalized as a motivating value- life ends. Right in the middle of doing your life, it can be over.  My heightened sense of mortality does not make me morbid, rather it makes me eager, curious, passionate, intense and yes, I guess, fearless. 

Rabbi Leah Cohen is the new Executive Director and Senior Jewish Chaplain at the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale University. 

4 replies on “A Second Act, Again: Reflections of a New Hillel Rabbi”

Leah, what an inspiring article! As one who also began over again in mid-life, and has known too many whose lives were cut short before the chance to fulfill their dreams, I so admire your desire for new challenges. Kol HaKavod, and b’hatzlahah in your new position.
— Margie Meyer

I attended Yale in its “pre-steroid Hillel” era…but more important than the building (the office was a tiny one in the Yale Post office building, and the kosher kitchen was in the basement of the Rabbi’s house on 35 High Street) and the programs and the money were the two incredible rabbis who were the directors while I was there: Richard Israel (z”l) and Arnold Jacob Wolf (z”l)…two brilliant, amazing individuals who differed significantly in personality, but made an indelible impact on my life and the lives of many others. (Jim Ponet came after my time, although I knew him when I was a Hillel colleague). So may your rabbinate there be equally inspiring.

And one more thing: don’t be too over-impressed by those “mind-boggling” students. I was one myself, and married one as well, and some of my closest friends were from my days at Yale, but everyone in the world is always too impressed by the Yale pedigree. These students will need you to tend their neshamas and their insecurities and their aspirations beyond all the hype and all the kudos they’re always receiving. They will need you as their rabbi more than their cheerleader, someone to challenge them to use their “elite” status for good and for justice and for worthy living.

And as someone who also grew up in New Haven, I would ask you to remind those students every once in a while about the world just outside their dorm rooms, just a few blocks away,a milieu far different from the sheltered Ivy existence they will enjoy. New Haven is much more than just about Yale, and so is the world.

Good luck and Shanah tovah!

Mindy Portnoy

Dear Leah:

In all you have done you have actualized and gone beyond all of high expectations for you. Kol hakavod and yishar kochech! We are so proud of what you have done and will do.
Shelly Zimmerman

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