Rabbinic Reflections

‘The High Places Along the Way’: Rabbi Edward Paul Cohn Reflects on His Jubilee Year in the Reform Rabbinate 

“Every rabbi has 3,000 years of intelligent ancestors. If you do not become increasingly more a learned rabbi, you betray the heritage of those who gave you birth… Count that day lost in which you have not opened a Jewish book. If you do not learn, you cannot lead…”

Such is but a sample of Dr. Jacob Rader Marcus’s sermon, “The Larger Task,” which he delivered at our ordination on June 1, 1974. I met Dr. Marcus in 1966 when I was registering for the pre-rabbinic program sponsored by the University of Cincinnati and the HUC-JIR. He was my beloved mentor, and I am proud to say that due to my personal intervention, Dr. Marcus decided to accept our class’s invitation to be the speaker on ordination day. Many times, throughout these past 50 years, I have reread the text of his inspiring charge to us. 

We were the largest and perhaps one of the most theologically disparate classes in the College’s history. I was one of the two “Classical Reformers,” though I grew up in a traditional Jewish household, located in, of all places, Glen Burnie, Maryland, where my father’s parents settled in 1914. I say “of all places” because the Cohns made up the entirety of Glen Burnie’s Jewish community. We were members of Temple Oheb Shalom on Baltimore’s Eutaw Place, about an hour’s drive away. 

According to my mother, as a child I only behaved when I was being fed and, remarkably, when we were at Temple. I vividly remember as a six-year-old being transfixed by the sound of the temple’s cantor and choir accompanied by the pipe organ. One of my major regrets is the current “exile” of the pipe organ and the replacement of the majestic and distinctive music of our Reform tradition in favor of sing-along camp music! I am very grateful that the majority of my rabbinate was happily spent with fabulous congregations which were welcoming and understanding of my left-of-center liturgical preferences! 

Taken as a whole, I believe that the overwhelming majority of our congregants from these historic temples I have been honored to serve in Atlanta, Macon, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, and now as a biweekly in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, will remember me as a warm, intelligent, and approachable rabbi, an articulate preacher, a creative and impassioned teacher of both children and adults, one who enthusiastically endorsed the welcome of LGBTQ+, interfaith, and Jews by Choice, and who never hesitated to share his faith, his hopes for our Jewish people, and his dream of Prophetic justice for all of God’s children. There were surely instances when this audacious welcome was not appreciated by all our members, but I held firm. 

I was honored to publicly represent our faith at the local, state, and national level. I was privileged to be founder and chair of the New Orleans Human Rights Commission for many years, and I was selected by MSNBC as an ethics consultant and a panel member of the internationally televised show “The Ethical Edge.” My dream of creating a New Orleans Holocaust Memorial was in fact realized with the support of our congregation, Temple Sinai, the New Orleans Jewish Federation, and the Holocaust Survivors organization. Designed by the world-renowned artist, Yaacov Agam, the memorial in Goldring/Woldenburg Park is visited by 700,000 visitors a year. 

Well, these are those “high places along the way” as our colleague, Rabbi Alvin Fine put it in his wonderful poem “Life Is a Journey.” 

Surely the greatest accomplishment, which I cherish above all others, is 52 years of loving marriage to my best friend, without whom my dream of a worthy rabbinate would never have been possible—Andrea Levy Cohn. She has been my partner, my critic, and my strength all along the way since we met in Cincinnati as undergrads. Together, we can be proud of the family we have raised: daughters, Dr. Jennifer Cohn Kesselheim and Debra Lynn Kraar; their devoted husbands, Aaron and Eric; and our five loving grandchildren, Maxwell, Ryann, Sydney, Noah, and Leo.  

Fifty years in the rabbinate—truly a shehecheyanu moment! 

Rabbi Edward Paul Cohn is celebrating 50 years as a Reform rabbi. We look forward to celebrating him and all of the CCAR’s 50-year rabbis when we come together at CCAR Convention 2024.

One reply on “‘The High Places Along the Way’: Rabbi Edward Paul Cohn Reflects on His Jubilee Year in the Reform Rabbinate ”

Ed… my dear friend and spiritual soulmate for the past 57 years… this moving reflection is so YOU!
You and I have fought the good fight, even as our beloved pipe organs and choir lofts have been discarded for the ubiquitous guitar, and the precious Union Prayer Book’s genius – the profound wisdom that “less is more” – has given way to liturgies that aspire to be kol bo- and valued by volume.

We have tried to be faithful servants and stewards of a magnificent Reform heritage… and we can be confident that our labors will remain a thread of the larger tapestry. We’ll share a rousing rendition of “All the World Shall Come to Serve You” on June 1!😊❤️✡️🙏

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