Shir Ami Welcomes Next Iteration of Clergy

From left: Rabbi Charles Briskin, Cantor Rachel Kohlbrenner and Shir Ami President Sharon Benoff. | Photo provided

Shir Ami in Bucks County is adding two new personnel to its clergy beginning this summer.

On July 1, Rabbi Charles Briskin will take over full time for departing Rabbi Joel Simon. Simon, who became the senior rabbi of Shir Ami three years ago, will be returning to Congregation Schaarai Zedek in Tampa, Fla. Cantor Rachel Kohlbrenner will also start July 1, replacing Cantor Mark Elson, who is retiring after 33 years.

Briskin grew up in Boston but has served a congregation in the Greater Los Angeles area — Temple Beth El in San Pedro, Calif., near Long Beach — since 2005, and one prior in Northern California.

The synagogue he leads now is a tight-knit, small community, but vibrant nonetheless. He succeeded a rabbi who had been there for 30 years, and he’s again looking forward to getting to build a new generation at Shir Ami.

“I’m really looking forward to the many opportunities that Shir Ami will provide,” said Briskin, who was ordained from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 2001. “It’s a young congregation with a lot of strong lay leadership, very strong professional team.”

He credited the leadership for being willing to try new endeavors and experiment with new programming.

Shir Ami also offers fresh eyes and ideas from newer members in addition to established team members, who Briskin said will be instrumental in providing historical context and connections with the community.

Briskin said there is an advantage to both him and Kohlbrenner joining Shir Ami at the same time.

“They’re in a unique position to have a both a new rabbi and cantor coming in. … That does not happen very often in synagogue life,” he laughed, adding that he hopes the new team will strengthen the shul from within.

“There is a real hunger for some new ideas, new programming, new opportunities,” he said. Although Simon and Elson will be missed, he said, “there’s a desire to see what the two of us can bring to the congregation, especially maybe areas they haven’t seen before.”

One example, he noted, is his dedication to social justice. He believes he can bring Shir Ami’s activism to the next level.

Briskin will be moving to Bucks County with his wife and two sons, ages 11 and 14.

“Coming to Philadelphia will be a big change, but one that I’m very excited about,” he said. “We’re excited to be in a much larger and much more robust Jewish community, and being part of a larger synagogue that has a lot of opportunities for not just my kids but the youth in general. I think that will be a great change and a very positive change for us, both personally and professionally.”

For her part, Kohlbrenner was ordained almost nine years ago from Hebrew Union College at the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music.

Originally from Miami, she resides in Long Island, N.Y., where she serves as the cantor of Central Synagogue-Beth Emeth in Rockville Centre, N.Y. She’s been with the joint Reform and Reconstructionist synagogue since her ordination, so joining the Shir Ami clergy is her “next adventure.”

“[Shir Ami] is a wonderful, vibrant community that has a lot of excitement about a new clergy team starting,” she said. “It has a lot of great programming and a really warm, welcoming community.”

Kohlbrenner’s cantorial style is eclectic, she said, ranging from the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) songleading camp styles of her youth, to more traditional cantorial practices she learned in college.

She hopes her musical creativity will influence a new vision for Shir Ami.

“I like to mix it all together to make something that molds different traditions from different generations together,” she said.

She’s also excited to move to the Philadelphia area with her husband — who has relatives nearby — and their two daughters, ages 3 and 6.

“There are so many great things for my family to do [in Philadelphia] and great things to be a part of in the wider community,” she added. 

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