Now in their sixth year at Young Israel of Stamford, Rabbi Eli and Rebbetzin Naomi Kohl continue to inspire and organize dynamic, creative activities for their growing community.
The couple are parents to four school-age children who attend the Bi-Cultural Hebrew Academy; Rebbetzin Kohl is also the assistant dean at Lander College for Women, a division of Touro College in New York City.
Rebbetzin Kohl feels lucky to have grown up in the vibrant Jewish community of Highland Park, New Jersey. She attended Jewish day school, high school and then seminary in Israel. She loved being a part of New Jersey’s NCSY for 13 years, and credits her desire to be active in the Jewish community to the fun and positive Jewish energy she experienced in NCSY.
She graduated from Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women, Wurzweiler School of Social Work and Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration. “I felt as if I was educating myself towards my own degree in Jewish communal organization,” the rebbetzin said. She, her husband and their growing family then spent seven years working for Maryland Hillel through the OU Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus at the University of Maryland, where she was able to put so many of her educational skills to professional use.
Rebbetzin Kohl now enjoys living in Stamford. “It’s a warm, loving community,” she shared. “It’s small enough that it feels like family, and everyone really cares about everyone. It’s also large enough that it’s fun, with so many interesting people to learn from and grow with.”
Prior to the onset of COVID, with the help of the YIS community, the Kohls moved to a new home in a central part of town close to the shul. Because of its location at the end of a cul-de-sac and its proximity to shul, the Kohl’s home has become a place for new Stamford couples and families to stop by for safe socializing on a Shabbat afternoon. It’s important for both Rabbi and Rebbetzin Kohl to keep the community connected to the shul and to one another in these times.
Discussing the ways in which COVID presents a challenge to keeping young couples and families engaged, Rebbetzin Kohl explained: “Finding ways to connect with people on a regular basis, in a safe way, has not been easy. For the past six years we could rely on connecting with members every Shabbat in shul and we could invite people for a meal or to attend a program. Now, we have to rely on more creative ways to connect with people on a regular basis.”
Fortunately, due to the good weather during these last several months, YIS has been able to continue its ongoing family minyan, complete with singing and music, in a large backyard. The shul featured two well-attended outdoor socially distanced movie nights. A roving ice cream truck kiddush this summer was a special hit. Rabbi Kohl conducts a weekly Parsha Kahoot on Friday afternoons on Zoom for elementary school children as a way of reviewing the upcoming parsha along with the chance for students and the rabbi to remain connected. The kids are rewarded with parsha knowledge and, of course, receive their candy prizes.
Over Sukkot, Rebbetzin Kohl organized a unique Sukkah Hop Scavenger Hunt in which families visited sukkot, maintaining community connection. Families received a map and went around town on their own, visiting different sukkot and picking up candy and clues. “It was a complicated, but successful COVID-friendly Sukkah Hop!” said the rebbetzin. The shul’s annual Sukkah Hop is an eagerly anticipated program and Rebbetzin Kohl knew it was important to maintain this tradition in a fun, meaningful and safe way.
The shul recently began permitting children ages 10 and above to attend outdoor minyanim with their parents, helping to keep kids connected to the shul and to each other.
Rebbetzin Kohl is grateful to the YIS board members and youth director, who have been working tirelessly to continue to encourage shul participation by delivering bags of surprises to youth on a weekly basis. For Rosh Hashanah, the rebbetzin, rabbi and the board personally delivered YIS tote bags to members filled with a travel mug and other goodies; Shabbat and Simchat Torah bags were delivered as well, showing the community’s strong desire to stay connected.
In her professional life as assistant dean at Lander College for Women, Rebbetzin Kohl is responsible for ensuring meaningful and successful college experiences for all students. She helps students select classes and choose their majors; she assists with registration and class changes and is prepared to address myriad issues that invariably arise. She also works closely with the faculty and administration to troubleshoot possible concerns.
“I try to look at the bigger picture and try to find ways to make everyone’s experience even better,” Rebbetzin Kohl said. “In March we had to pivot our son’s bar mitzvah celebration that was scheduled to take place in April. I took inspiration from my work life when I saw how within days, without skipping a beat, my associates at Lander College understood the challenges and the college transitioned to fully remote learning. I was able to use that energy on the home front, showing how we can move forward and make the most of life in this new situation.”
Due to COVID-19, Rebbetzin Kohl now works from home three days a week and commutes to the city twice a week, quite a change from her previous schedule. “I have been so blessed to have my husband’s support, great children who help out, friends in the community and an amazing team at work. As they say, it takes a village! My new schedule does mean some nights staying up until 2 a.m. to catch up on all the emails of the day, or running new student orientations four nights in a row from my newly converted laundry room, now my home office.”
With a positive attitude and enormous drive, Rebbetzin Kohl continues to engage with and support the Young Israel of Stamford community and looks forward to continued growth with good health and happiness for the community for many years to come.
By Yvette Finkelstein