People always ask Ayelet Cohen why she, as a straight rabbi with every option, wants to work at a gay and lesbian synagogue. In response, she smiles and shares some of the reasons that working at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah is her dream job.
"What’s amazing about CBST is that people are here and active because they want to be, and because they can be," says the curly-haired rabbi. "They don’t have a sense of entitlement about being able to live Jewish lives," she says in an interview in the synagogue offices, located in the Westbeth artists’ complex in the West Village.
Rabbi Cohen, ordained in May at the Jewish Theological Seminary, has already spent two years as part of the CBST community, placed there by the seminary as a rabbinic intern.
While she is not the first heterosexual rabbinic intern CBST has hired (a few preceded her and the two incoming interns are both straight men) it is the first time that a heterosexual has been appointed to a full-fledged rabbinic position.
When the news was announced during Pride Shabbat services last month, the 600 people there applauded wildly, rose for a spontaneous standing ovation, and began singing "siman tov, mazal tov."
"It was very powerful, very emotional," says Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, the senior rabbi.
Through her deep involvement in the CBST community, Rabbi Cohen, 28, has already become a much-loved religious leader there. As an intern, she provided pastoral counseling; led services on Friday nights and the High Holy Days, when the congregation meets at the Jacob Javits Center and attracts as many as 6,000 people; coordinated the synagogue’s extensive adult education offerings, nascent Hebrew school and monthly family service; and oversaw conversions to Judaism.
She will continue those roles, and expand her duties into developing materials for gay and lesbian Jewish lifecycle events. "We want to create documents so that we’re not always cutting and pasting and whiting out" from the standard ketubot and baby-naming certificates, she says. She will also lead the congregation’s effort to develop a new siddur.
Her skills as a liturgist are already earning praise: Rabbi Cohen wrote a modern version of the "Al Hanisim" prayer, traditionally sung during Chanukah and Purim to celebrate deliverance. Her "Al HaNisim: A Prayer of Gratitude for LGBT Pride," has been recited in the Knesset and at CBST during Gay Pride Shabbat services. It will, predicts Rabbi Kleinbaum, become the standard pride prayer at all gay and lesbian synagogues.
"What I can do here with halacha and liturgy, the direction this community is interested in going, is very exciting for me," says Rabbi Cohen. "Here, I can use all parts of myself."