Har Shalom’s larger-than-life Rabbi Cahan dies at 83

Rabbi Leonard Cahan. Photo courtesty of Congregation Har Shalom.

Jackie Haynes remembers the months leading up to her daughter’s wedding. Rabbi Leonard Cahan of Congregation Har Shalom was to officiate. As part of the process, he was leading conversion classes for Haynes’ daughter’s fiancé.

Cahan crafted the lessons with his student’s learning disability in mind, eschewing dense reading for video and other visual prompts. A reading specialist herself, Haynes was struck by how digestible Cahan was making the lessons.

“I asked him one day, ‘Where did you learn that? How did you come up with these ideas?’” Haynes said. “He said to me, ‘Jackie, a rabbi’s first job is a teacher, and I aim to be the best teacher I can.”

Cahan, a gregarious, larger-than-life figure with a booming voice who led the Conservative congregation in Potomac for 27 years and served as its rabbi emeritus since 2001, died Jan. 17 at the age of 83.


Haynes joined Har Shalom in 1976, two years after Cahan became senior rabbi. One of the major selling points for her was the congregation’s unflinching egalitarianism, which she said wasn’t common at the time.

“A lot of the things that we think of today as the liberal, progressive issues, including women’s rights and reproductive rights, he was out in front of that 30 years ago. He was truly ahead of his time,” said Haynes, who was synagogue president from 1993 to 1995.

Har Shalom under Cahan was also a place of serious study and discourse. “Intellectual sounds too stuffy, but it was a great place that really challenged you,” Haynes said.

Sermons were meant to prompt discussion — a democratic philosophy that permeated almost everything Cahan did at the synagogue and remained after he stepped down as the full-time rabbi in 2001, according to Adam Raskin, Har Shalom’s senior rabbi since 2011.

Cahan’s legacy can be found in the semi-circular shape of the sanctuary, where the bima is nearly level with the pews.

“It’s always been an unpretentious congregation,” Raskin said. “He was ahead of his time in many ways because the Conservative movement in the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and even in some places today, had a very formal, detached kind of clergy style. He eschewed all that. He was really into a kind of democratic, accessible, participatory style of synagogue experience.”

Over his tenure, Har Shalom grew from about 300 to 1,100 families, according to Raskin, who said there were families for whom Cahan officiated at life cycle events for multiple generations.

Leonard Cahan grew up in a middle-class family in Philadelphia before enrolling at the University of Pennsylvania to study psychology. He simultaneously attended Gratz College for Jewish studies with an eye toward the rabbinate. After completing his undergraduate studies, he moved to New York to enroll at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he spent his free time working at the school’s bookstore.

It was at the JTS that he met Elizabeth Peilen. The two married in 1960 and set off to pulpits as far as Japan, where Rabbi Cahan served as a naval chaplain. They made stops at congregations in Detroit and Oakland before settling in Potomac in 1974, where the rabbi took the helm of a young but growing flock in the rapidly expanding Jewish community of the Washington suburbs.

Elizabeth was nearly as much of a presence at the congregation as he, said Raskin.

“Elizabeth is a woman who’s extremely Jewishly knowledgeable and pious, and she was fully his partner in everything in the rabbinate,” Raskin said. “She’s so educated and sophisticated, she was very much a part of everything that did Jewishly.”

One of Cahan’s proudest moments took place in 1985 when, as the president of the Washington Board of Rabbis, he led 25 area rabbis to demonstrate at the Soviet Embassy protesting the treatment of Soviet Jews.

“‘For God’s sake, for the sake of our oppressed brethren, let us sound the call that will be heard from here to the Kremlin,’ “ The Washington Post reported Cahan declaring, “as members of the group blew a loud blast on shofars.”

Police charged the group with violating the prohibition of demonstrating within 500 feet of an embassy. Cahan and four others refused to pay the $50 fine and spent two weeks in jail, fulfilling their mission of drawing attention to the plight of Soviet Jews.

“It was a galvanizing moment,” Cahan told the Gazette in 2001 on the eve of his retirement. By that time he was ready to step away from being a pulpit rabbi.

“You get a little weary of the technical details that as rabbi of a congregation, you have to worry about,” Cahan told the Gazette. “There’s never a free night. There are meetings, classes to teach and counseling. It’s almost seven days a week.”

Retirement would allow him time to enjoy his hobbies. “I’ve been a stamp collector since I was a teenager,” Cahan said. “And I like wine with dinner, but you can’t do it when you have a meeting.”

But Cahan did not recede into the background at Har Shalom. He continued to lead a weekly Talmud class as well as an interfaith Bible study with nearby Emmanuel Lutheran Church.

About two years ago, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Still, he regularly attended Shabbat services.

Last November, Har Shalom celebrated the 70th anniversary of his bar mitzvah. A letter from the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly noted his work as chairman of the editorial committee of the prayer books “Siddur Sim Shalom for Shabbat and Festivals” and “Siddur Shalom for Weekdays.”

In addition to his wife, he is survived by the couple’s children Jonathan and Benjamin Cahan, Dr. Sara (Dr. Kenneth) Helms Cahan and Rabbi Joshua (Dr. Tamar Gordon) Cahan; a sister, Naomi Katz; and grandchildren Elisha and Yair Gordon-Cahan.

Contributions may be made to Congregation Har Shalom, JSSA Hospice or to the Lustgarten Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research.

In his eulogy, Raskin recalled that the last time Cahan came to Har Shalom was in late November for his 83rd birthday. He gave a speech before reading the haftarah, calling his wife his “Eshet Chayil, his pillar of strength, the inspiration of his rabbinate, the love of his life.”

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  1. My family has been members of Congregation Har Shalom since 1972. I remember when Rabbi Cahan became the head rabbi, i was just 10 years old in the 6th grade. I recollect that at that time i was at the beginning stages of preparing to become Bar Mitzvah’d. The teacher prepared me well, but just as every child getting ready to recite, in Hebrew, in front of a large crowd, i was nervous. My parents were making me even more nervous. The person that really helped me was “the new rabbi” — Rabbi Cahan made me feel comfortable immediately when i initially met with him in his private office. I recall his calming influence on me and i’m told i did a terrific job at my Bar Mitzvah. I give him and my teacher all the credit. Over the years, i found Rabbi Cahan to be an incredibly talented leader. His sermons were powerful, intellectual, and entertaining. He was always great to our family, as i’m sure he was to all the other Har Shalom members. He had this personable way of making me feel that “Rabbi Cahan was my rabbi,” as if he were a member of our family.

    In later years, as he moved on to emeritus rabbi status, he continued to accommodate families with his personal services, even when he really didn’t have to. I recall when my mother passed away five years ago, without much notice, Rabbi Cahan adjusted his schedule so that he could perform the funeral service, an act that i know comforted my family, and my mother would’ve wanted.

    i’ll never forget Rabbi Cahan, a terrific rabbi and a wonderful man.


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