Saturday, January 28, 2023

On November 20, the Fleetwood Synagogue in Mount Vernon held the Installation of Rabbi Dr. Yosef Cohen as its new morah d’atrah. Featured speakers included Rabbi Dr. J. David Bleich, rosh kollel of YU’s Rabbi Norman Lamm Kollel L’Horaah, and Rabbi Dr. Michael Rosensweig, rosh kollel of RIETS’ Beren Kollel Elyon.

Born in Jerusalem, Rabbi Cohen came with his family to the U.S. as a child and grew up in the Brighton neighborhood of Boston. After graduating from Yeshiva University with a degree in biology, he continued his studies at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology/Technion American Medical School in Haifa, where he completed requirements for the M.D. degree, and is now working toward a Ph.D. in the U.S. For more than five years, he has served as a research assistant for Rabbi Dr. J. David Bleich, researching contemporary issues in medical ethics.

Rabbi Cohen received his rabbinic ordination in 2019 from the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS), and is currently studying for advanced ordination at YU. From 2018-2021, he and his wife, Eliana (who is from Edison, New Jersey), served as the rabbinic couple for the small local community at the Technion, which comprised a diverse group of individuals, from ultra – Orthodox to non-religious students. As a semicha student, he served as a summer rabbinic intern at Congregation Beth Aaron, Teaneck, and more recently was a scholar-in-residence for Shaarei Torah of Syracuse, New York. The couple has two children.

Rabbi Cohen began his first official remarks to his congregants referring to their nearly one-hour walking distance from other similar shuls. “Our geography gives us a status not afforded to most contemporary shuls,” he said. “We’re the light of Torah, representing Orthodox Judaism in this neighborhood. We might have the power to determine when Shabbos begins and ends. Anyone looking for a minyan or a beis midrash must come to us. We bear that most awesome of responsibility. We must ask: Who are we and what do we stand for?”

The new rabbi quoted Pirkei Avot, saying, “The world stands on three pillars: learning Torah, tefillah, and doing good deeds. Rav Chaim of Volozhin interpreted that the Mishna isn’t simply telling us three important concepts. Rather, it expounds on three manifestations of the human self that helped God create the world. They’re our bodies, souls and mind: each critical to our mission.

“With our physical bodies, we perform chesed, participate in charity work and ensure the needs of the community are met. With our souls, we pray, we search for God in our lives. With our minds, we learn Torah. Our world, our community, exists for these three pillars.

“Members of this shul are invested in the growth of the community and ensuring that all are taken care of,” Rabbi Cohen continued. “There’s also a well-established framework for taking care of financially disadvantaged members of the community in a dignified and respectful manner. Simply, we care. We use our bodies to be ovdei Hashem.

“We are a small shul. A significant percentage of our members have incredibly busy professional lives. We also have older members that have a harder time coming to shul and yet we still maintain our daily minyan.

“One of the first requests I received … was to introduce a tefillah chavruta to closely examine the nature and structure of davening and the nefesh of our shul. This demands appreciating and comprehending the tefilot we say every day.

“There’s a palpable, raw thirst for Torah in our shul,” Rabbi Cohen noted. “In my second week, I presented a shiur that I thought would take a half-hour, at most, to deliver. A month later, I still wasn’t done. A 20-minute pilot program quickly evolved into a weekly hour-long shiur by the team’s request. We just celebrated a siyum on Seder Zeraim from one of the youngest members.

“During shiurim, I’m constantly interrupted, and side-tracked, to debate and discuss the consequences of what we’re learning. Here, you feel the Talmud Torah, discussing concepts that aren’t remote and irrelevant, but real, tangible ideas—an intellectual pursuit worthy of emotional investment.”

The rabbi concluded: “We should be proud of our unique position in Fleetwood. Yes, we want to grow, but we cannot forget who we are. However, we can’t grow complacent. We cannot be satisfied with all we’ve accomplished thus far. We must continue to strive to ensure the light of Fleetwood Synagogue maintains its strength for all of its surroundings.”

During the collation, Rabbi Cohen was asked what he feels he brings to the Fleetwood community. “This community has a lot of professionals,” he replied, “people who are very well-educated.” As a medical professional, he will have responsibilities outside of the shul. “Rabbanut combines those two worlds….” Some congregants may be his attendings. “It’s fine; we switch back and forth, as we switch roles.”

On his goals for Fleetwood, Cohen said, “My main concentration is the people in shul right now. They’re invested in the shul and their learning; we hope to grow and expand on that. We’re small, but growing physically, having more people … finding out about us—a great place to live, very close to the city with great transportation, the cheapest housing in the area and hopefully attracting more people to come live here.”

In addition to adding shiurim, Rabbi Cohen is planning communal engagements including melave malkas, Friday night onegs and other programs “for people to come to shul, enjoy spending time with each other, getting to know each other.”

To learn more, visit https://fleetwoodsynagogue.org

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