OUT of the desert comes revelation and revolution. We all know that revelation came to Moses and to the Israelites at Mt. Sinai in the desert, but how many of us know that revolution also comes from the desert, in particular the Arava – Israel’s southernmost desert area?
On the shoulders of Schechter ordained Rabbi Sara Cohen sits the revolution. And she knows this from her perch as regional rabbi in the Eilot Regional Council which encompasses the Arava Desert just north of Israel’s southernmost city, Eilat.
Ordained in 2017, Rabbi Cohen has presided as a trailblazer for the past five years in the 2,649 square kilometer (1022 square mile) area – equal to 13% of Israel’s total geographic size – primarily consisting of secular kibbutzim, agricultural villages, and small communities.
“I am one of the first Masorti/Conservative rabbis to receive payment from the State of Israel for the spiritual, counseling, and religious services that I provide as a rabbi,” says Cohen. But due to the ongoing discrimination towards non-orthodox rabbis, Cohen receives payment not from the Ministry of Religion, but rather from the Ministry of Culture and Sports.
To get paid by the government, Cohen annually needs to gather 250 signatures from around the region she serves. “Fortunately, members of my kibbutz provide the bulk of the signatures so that I only need to get another 10 or so from other people in the region.”
Cohen’s rabbinical duties take her on the roads and dusty paths throughout the sparsely populated regional council. She, like all community rabbis, facilitates life cycle ceremonies including bnai mitzvah and funerals; provides chaplaincy and religious counseling services; works with senior citizen groups; provides assistance in mourning rituals, and educates.
“Much of my duty is to educate children in the schools about Judaism. I also work with new immigrants in their ulpans (immersive language classes) in helping them understand Jewish practice,” reports Cohen.
“The fact that the government is paying a Conservative rabbi to preside over a regional council’s religious needs should be celebrated and recognized. Nothing about what I do is a given,” says Cohen.
Cohen did not start out to become a rabbi.
She has lived on Kibbutz Ketura since making Aliya in 1986. Ketura, a mixed religious, Conservative and non-religious kibbutz is situated in the Arava, 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of Eilat. There she has always been hard at work, co-founding the kibbutz’s Keren Kolot educational center and also serving two different terms as head coordinator for Ketura which was founded by the North American Young Judea movement and Israel’s Tzofim or Scouts movement in the 1970s.
In 2012 and 2014, the Masorti movement won important legal victories for their rabbis to be paid by the state – albeit only for rabbis serving regional councils. The payments are analogous to the salaries received by Orthodox rabbis serving moshavim, municipalities and regional councils.
Following the win, Schechter and the Masorti Movement needed a person to back up the win. They chose Sara!
She was the natural choice already holding an MA in Gender Studies from the Schechter Institutes and looking for something to further engage her spirituality.
“I had been seeking to deepen my own personal spirituality. I had a deep desire to open new aspects in my profession, I am after all an educator, and I had, and retain, a mission to broaden and strengthen the Judaism to which I am connected and to which I believe. Finally, Conservative or Masorti Judaism has bigger role to play in Israeli society and I want to be a part of this,” Cohen proudly states.
She goes on, “There are a lot of different areas in which we, the Masorti Movement, should be involved throughout Israeli society. There is great potential and amazing opportunities for the movement with great potential jobs for Conservative rabbis that Schechter is preparing.”
While not admitting to be the rebellious type, Cohen’s actions belie this.
“The current status quo is unacceptable to me and to the many of us who care deeply about Judaism in our society. I really believe we need to make inroads into changing religion and state in the country. It is not OK that the State of Israel only accepts other types of rabbis,” Cohen agonizes.
“We need more Conservative rabbis to shake up this up country. People need to open their eyes to the many facets of Judaism. This role has given me the opportunity to interact with people with whom I would not have been able to do if not for this job. This is valuable to everyone.”
Cohen calls her role a success story, despite understanding that she is in for the long fight of acceptance. “For the people in my area, I am a woman and a rabbi who works for the Government of Israel. This is a really important message. I just wish there were more.”