You Should Know…Rabbi Atara Cohen

Rabbi Atara Cohen. Photo Credit: Lauren Hoffman.

Rabbi Atara Cohen didn’t initially plan on becoming a rabbi. She studied religion at Princeton University before she said more opportunities opened up in the Orthodox Jewish community for women to study and become rabbis at the time. She then went to Yeshivat Maharat, the first yeshiva to train and ordain women in the Orthodox tradition, and became the first Princeton alum to be ordained as an Orthodox Jewish rabbi. Cohen now works to provide inclusiveness and be an advocate for positive change as the director of Jewish life and learning at the Edlavitch DCJCC.

What do you do as director of Jewish life and learning?

It’s my job to bring Jewish content to the different facets of what the JCC does and also to build its own community around robust Jewish life, whatever that means for people. One thing that I’m really excited about that we’re pretty invested in right now is taking the JCC to not just be the gym or preschool where people just come and go, but really to be a community center, be a place where people gather and have meaningful conversations. And I see my role as to foster those meaningful conversations around Jewish content.

Can you describe some of the specific programs you work with?

What’s fun about my department is that I get to work with a lot of different demographics. I get to work with demographics where I can create programming where people from different demographics get to be together … So that’s really meaningful to be able to have parents feel empowered to be centers of Jewish wisdom … What’s also really exciting for me is that I am building the relationships such that I’m going to be teaching a beginners Talmud class coming up for folks who’ve never learned Talmud. And really, I think that could be super-empowering for folks. And then we have a lot of different communities centered around art in the JCC. We have Theater J, we have JxJ, and I realized that there isn’t a community centered around visual arts and we have a lot of amazing local Jewish visual artists. And so, I’m hoping to put together a community around that that hopefully can be as robust as our LGBTQ group or our young professionals.

What is the personal importance that this type of work brings to you?

I grew up in a community where I was radically privileged with my access to Jewish texts. I started learning part of the Talmud when I was 11, which is basically unheard of for women, and it’s basically unheard of for people of any gender outside of the Orthodox community nowadays. And I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to engage deeply with Jewish content. I want to be able to give that back to folks and meet them where they’re at, whatever that means to them. I think that Shabbat is an amazingly powerful concept. For me, that involves not using electricity, for someone else it might mean calling their grandma, and I want to empower folks to feel like Jewish practice is their own and to meet them where they’re at.

What has your career path been?

I went off to college and spent four years in the Maharat program, and along the way, I realized that yes, I really care about creating strong, feminist Orthodox communities and I also realized that I felt my most passionate working on holistic spaces. So, I taught, I worked at Columbia/Barnard Hillel and I had the amazing privilege of working at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, which is an LGBTQ synagogue downtown [in New York City] with a fabulous, fantastic community and they were so accommodating to my needs. [I said] I don’t participate in services that use a microphone or Zoom. And they said, great, we’re going to focus on pastoral care and education, and that’s what I did, and it was such a gift. Then I received ordination in 2020 when no community wanted to hire anybody because no one was going anywhere … [After working in New York for several years] I looked for jobs. And I found basically, exactly what I would want to be my next steps in my community, which is working on communitywide holistic Jewish content … I think the JCC is on board and has a vision as well … and I was really excited to be part of that.

How does your Jewish identity impact you on a day-to-day basis?

I think I’m more Jewish than any other identifier of myself. Like, I think there’s more Jewish than basically anything else. And it’s just so suffused in who I am. I love being able to empower other folks to find that. But also, I am so lucky to have the confidence in my Judaism to be able to do what I did and make it what I need it to be. I’m a person who finds prayer really difficult. It’s part of why I couldn’t work full-time at a shul. Maybe I will someday, but right now that’s not where I’m at … And as I go through my life, my heart is breaking for the conflict in Israel and Gaza. And I’m trying to figure out what my role is there. I figure that right now, I’m focusing on supporting the
folks here.

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