My grandfather was an important Reform rabbi — he wrote one of the four platforms the movement has ever produced — and my father is a prominent cantor and rabbi, but I never thought about becoming a rabbi growing up. When I began singing in my teens I did want to learn cantorial music, and upon returning from an ulpan (Hebrew immersion) summer in Israel at age 15 I asked my dad to teach me. That started a process of engagement as a Jewish professional that is now in its fourth decade.
I started working professionally as a cantor at 17, and two years after college I took my first full-time position as a Conservative hazzan in Los Angeles. Two years later, I became the cantor in Santa Barbara, where I served five years, and enjoyed creating a rich music program. We had 80 children in our youth choir, 20 in our teen choir, and 30 more between our Shabbat and High Holy Day adult choirs.
When the Santa Barbara rabbi took another job we had a six-month gap. I served as cantor and rabbi for a congregation of about 500 families — I was 28 years old — and it was both the most demanding and the most rewarding work I had ever done. While I remain a member of the Conservative Cantors Assembly, I decided to go to Reform rabbinical school, which I began in 1991 in Jerusalem. I was ordained in 1995 at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, where my grandfather taught for 35 years.
I have now been a rabbi for 20 years and a cantor for 37.
An experience as a student rabbi in Billings, Mont., in 1993-1994 stayed with me and changed my rabbinate dramatically. I traveled to our small congregation from Ohio every other weekend. Our Billings temple and some congregants were attacked by anti-Semites. The incredible support we received from the non-Jewish community became a national and international story. I learned firsthand that the courage and friendship of members of every religious tradition mean the world at a time of challenge. This has shaped my understanding of the essential purpose of religion in our world, and the need to reach across all boundary lines to affirm our common humanity, and to fulfill our shared need to create holiness and ethics in this world.
I have never really questioned why I became a rabbi, although some days are more challenging than others. When we need to comfort the parents of a child who has died, or we lose a close friend too soon we rabbis are just like everyone else. We hurt, but we must help others even out of our feelings of personal loss.
A fine rabbi I worked with once told me, “Congregational rabbis are the last general practitioners of the art of life.” We may communicate electronically more than we did in the past, but our true function remains the same. However, many things we assumed about the rabbinate and congregations in earlier years we must now work to reestablish: rabbinic authority; involvement and support for temple and religious school; Jewish integrity in ritual, education and practice; and commitment to true Jewish community based in the most important institution of Judaism in history, the synagogue. All of these must be proudly reaffirmed in today’s American Jewish world.
I still feel too young to worry about legacy. As a rabbi I have always tried to reach out to everyone, of every age and at every level, to teach the wonderful and dynamic religious, intellectual and ethical messages of Judaism. I hope that I always will. Through the Taste of Judaism program we have educated well over 5,000 students about Judaism, with more to come.
In addition to having led a Zohar study group for 11 years on the deep mysticism of Judaism, and hosted the weekly Too Jewish Radio Show on KVOI-AM for 13 years, my rabbinic background has inspired me to visit all the holiest places on earth. This experience has been in many way truly transformative, and I hope to be able to transmit these lessons effectively now and in the future.
Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon is senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El.