Lori Cohen is rabbi at Temple Shalom in Waterloo, Ont., and teacher at the Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto.
I was born a Protestant but I was on a spiritual quest by the time I was nine years old. I would literally go to different churches on different nights of the week. Years and years later, my parents found a piece of artwork I did in Grade 1, where I wrote underneath it "Wandering Jew." My undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto introduced me to the Talmud [a compilation of Jewish law and rabbinical wisdom] and I was intrigued with it as an intellectual study as well as a spiritual quest. At 20, I left to travel for a year and spent six months in Israel.
Before becoming a rabbi, I started a congregation and a Hebrew school in Newmarket, [Ont.], called Or Hadash. Every week, I'd study a little bit to lead a service or teach a class, and I really enjoyed it. I thought to myself, "If this is my volunteer work, why couldn't I do this full-time?" I applied to rabbinical school, thinking they would never accept me. I was 36 years old and a mother of three. I got my acceptance letter in April and I was supposed to show up in Israel in June. My husband said "Congratulations, they accepted you; should we frame the letter?" He thought I just wanted to be accepted but I really wanted to go. That marriage didn't last and I went off to Israel as a single mom.
I couldn't do anything but become a rabbi. I was so driven with that as a calling that I was able to withstand all kinds of challenges en route. Going to Israel, not having any money, I didn't know where the kids were going to school. It really was a calling of faith because I had to believe it was possible. At the same time, I never really believed I could finish the five-year graduate program. I didn't really believe until my fourth year. I was ordained by age 42.
When I returned to Toronto, I worked at Temple Sinai, a Reform synagogue. A lot of people think you only work on Shabbat [the Sabbath], but that's probably the easiest day. The one thing that drew me to a rabbinic career is the diverse nature of the work. Every day is different. There is lot of visiting people in homes and hospitals.
The other aspect of the role is spiritual counselling. I'm not a priest, so it's not a confession but some people do seek rabbis in that capacity. There are people who struggle with "Why do bad things happen to good people?" When something happens to a member of the family, the first thing people think is "What did I do wrong and why is God punishing me?" So there is a lot of that that I deal with. Sometimes I will meet someone years later and I won't remember the interaction well but they will quote my words back to me and say that I had an impact, which is a real privilege.
I spend a lot of time on the big moments in life, from birth to b'nei mitzvah, to weddings and funerals. There is a lot of committee work, including board work, and my role is usually to create a vision for the community's values. For example, the synagogue I'm with right now is sponsoring a Syrian family, so I may speak from the bemah [pulpit] on the subject of why our values dictate that we should bring a Muslim family to Canada.
There is still a lot of internal infighting in the community. As a woman and a Reform Jew, my legitimacy is still questioned. I was the first female rabbi at CHAT [the Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto], the only Hebrew high school in Toronto. My first two or three months after I started teaching at the school, there was a phone message for me that said I should take my kippah [skullcap] off and stop trying to be a man or all these plagues will befall the community. On the one hand, I was fearful, On the other hand, it's kind of a joke. I don't think I have enough power to bring down a plague for wearing a kippah.
There are lots of discrepancies on how rabbis are paid. At first, I felt guilty about taking money, since you aren't suppose to be paid for teaching Torah [the Jewish Bible]. I did a number of things for free. It's only in modern times that the rabbi became a profession. But practicality set in. I had to pay bills. Maybe purpose should transcend money but any wedding I do, I know that more money is spent on the invitations than the rabbi. The party planner is compensated more.
This is who I am. It's a title I take seriously. I'm a rabbi all the time, when I'm teaching or doing anything else. There is the expectation that you can never leave the role and it is a very visible one but I still go grocery shopping in my jeans.
As told to Leah Eichler. This interview has been edited and condensed.