High Holidays | Local

Rabbi Helen Cohn

Rabbi Helen Cohn, left, talks with Congregation M’kor Hayim congregants Ann Markewitz, Grace Hartman and Bob Chasan earlier this summer.

I grew up in a secular but Jewishly identified home. Once I left for college, and later married a man who wasn’t Jewish, my connection to Judaism was limited to occasional family seders. Years later, single again and on a business trip in New England, I decided on a whim to attend Rosh Hashanah evening services, which happened to be that very night. My hotel gave me the name and phone number of a local synagogue. The woman who answered my call must have been amused by the naiveté of my question, “Are you having services tonight?” She was kind, she said yes and gave me directions.

My journey that night was straight out of Joseph Campbell: miles from home, in a rented car, driving alone on back roads in the dark to an unknown destination. And then, around a corner, a blaze of light! The service was in a rented hall in what seemed the middle of nowhere. I parked my car and approached two men bathed in light standing on the front stairs. Before I could introduce myself one of them said, “Welcome! We were expecting you!”

It had been decades since I had been in a synagogue. I was taken by surprise when both the rabbi and the cantor turned out to be women. O brave new world! I sat alone and self-conscious, with an unfamiliar prayer book, not sure of what to do, watching my neighbors out of the corner of my eye. Stand up? Sit down? What’s happening now? And yet in spite of my discomfort, from the moment the service began, I began crying. Even though this was more than 25 years ago, I remember clearly what I was wearing: a plaid jacket with two pockets and a grey skirt with two pockets. As is my custom, I had a tissue in each pocket, which, by the end of the evening, looked like four damp golf balls. In spite of having no idea what was happening, at one point we were all standing and singing something in Hebrew, and I found — to my utter amazement — that I was singing too! I know now it was the Shema. At the time I only knew that something very deep within me was being called forth.

At the end of that week, when I returned home to Washington, D.C., I called the JCC and asked if they had any kind of introduction to Judaism class. The answer was yes, and during the four sessions of that class I learned how much I didn’t know about Judaism. I also learned how much I wanted to know. That desire to know eventually led me several years later to apply to the rabbinic program at Hebrew Union College.

Rabbi Helen Cohn is the spiritual leader of Congregation M’kor Hayim.