Wynnewood Rabbi Neil Cooper to Step Down

Rabbi Neil Cooper and his wife Lori. (Eli Nachmani of Sabra Studios)

Another local rabbi will be stepping away from the pulpit after decades of service.

Rabbi Neil Cooper of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood said the following about his decision to leave in June 2022:

“It’s time.”

Cooper, 68, started at Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in 1991. The Conservative congregation grew from 600 to 700 families during his three decades. But he’s stepping aside now to make way for a younger rabbi.

“The challenges that are ahead for the American-Jewish community require new thinking and leadership,” Cooper said.

He came to Wynnewood after nine years at Temple Beth Ahm in New Jersey. At that time, he was the young rabbi who understood the challenges of the next generation.

“The synagogue was a fortress to protect the Jewish community from the encroachment of secular society,” Cooper explained. “You did that by creating a place where people felt comfortable.”

Building a preschool was often the key initiative for synagogues in the ’90s. But Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El already had one that was thriving. So Cooper’s job, as he put it, was to maintain the status quo and, gradually, add to it.

Cooper attached a new day care center and a program for special needs kids to the existing preschool. About 20 years ago, he raised $400,000 to build a community-run mikvah. It’s still one of the only mikvahs in the Philadelphia area.

Around the same time, Cooper helped raise several million dollars to complete a building expansion. The project added a whole second building to Beth Hillel-Beth El’s existing structure, and included a new chapel, offices and a dozen classrooms.

Cooper also revamped the synagogue’s membership categories around a patron model. Several hundred top-paying supporters started giving money at the beginning of the year, instead of throughout it. That gave the organization more cash flow to work with as the calendar went on.

“We have a thriving synagogue in a difficult time for Conservative synagogues,” said Barbara Bookman, the synagogue president.

As Bookman explained, Cooper’s projects were effective because he established an open and welcoming culture.

The United States in 2021, and the American-Jewish community, is clearly different than it was in 1991, and Cooper adjusted with the times.

Nowadays, a large proportion of Jewish marriages are interfaith unions, and Cooper has welcomed interfaith couples. He also officiates gay and lesbian weddings if both people are Jewish.

And when the pandemic broke out in March 2020, Cooper pivoted to Zoom and livestream services; the synagogue is still offering those options for congregants.

Rabbi Neil Cooper, center, wearing hat, at a recent synagogue event. (Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El)

Bookman described Cooper’s legacy thusly: “Building community, warmth and camaraderie. It’s more than a house of prayer. Our synagogue is the cornerstone of many people’s lives.”

But progressiveness cannot overcome age.

Pushing 70, Cooper said he wants to spend more time with his three children and seven grandchildren. He also hopes to engage the hobbies he’s neglected for years: music, woodworking and gardening.

These are the desires of a man who wants to retire, not one who stands ready to address the myriad challenges of modern Jewry.

This has been coming for some time: Five years ago, he decided with fellow synagogue leaders that he would retire at the end of this contract.

“It was never my intention to do this until I die,” Cooper said.

In retirement, the rabbi and his wife, Lori, will split their time between Wynnewood and Israel. They have one daughter and one grandchild here, and two children and six grandchildren in the Holy Land.

As he looks ahead, the rabbi is content with the status of his synagogue. But he’s clear on the difficult path ahead for his successor.

Those challenges for modern Jewry? They are manifold, according to Cooper.

A younger rabbi, he said, must engage a younger generation that is uncertain about religion. He or she needs to bridge the expanding gap between American Jews and Israel. The next rabbi also has to welcome the growing LGBTQ+ community.

More than anything, though, Cooper believes the new leader must show intermarried Jews that staying Jewish is still important.

“There needs to be a sense of importance and urgency,” he said.

Bookman is confident that the temple will continue to thrive even after their longtime rabbi steps down.

“We’re a well-respected synagogue,” she said. “We have a wonderful school
and community.”

The pandemic didn’t change that, she added.

“Even though people couldn’t be together, we felt that sense of closeness.”

jsaffren@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0740


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