In August, the Jewish Exponent’s weekly Synagogue Spotlight section focused on Lower Merion Synagogue, the Orthodox shul where congregants walk to Shabbat services.
The article focused on how the community that started in 1954 with five families never stopped growing over the decades. Today, it has more than 450 households and is the largest Orthodox synagogue in Pennsylvania.
The article also mentioned that the continued growth required LMS to hire its first-ever assistant rabbi. It just did not include that new rabbi’s name. He’s Ezra Cohen, and he’s excited to introduce himself to the wider Jewish community in the Philadelphia area.
Cohen, 27, lives in Merion Station near the shul and works under Rabbi Avraham J. Shmidman, LMS’ spiritual leader. The assistant rabbi started in July after accepting the offer and moving from New York City with his wife Tova. Cohen grew up in New Rochelle, a suburb of NYC, and attended Yeshiva University in the city. This is his first job out of rabbinical school.
“I thought it was a community I wanted to work at,” he said.
“It’s definitely great to have a new world to explore,” Cohen added of the Philadelphia area. “I am enjoying the weather that’s warmer by about 2 degrees every day.”
The young rabbi chose LMS because it checked out both on paper and off, as he put it.
On paper, the synagogue wanted a rabbi who would get out there and interact with people; and Cohen likes to do that in general, not just in his professional life. The shul also wanted a young leader whose religious philosophy aligned with its denomination; Cohen, for his part, believes in interpreting Jewish law as it’s been interpreted throughout history. And lastly, LMS wanted a rabbi who could teach and help expand its educational programming; the 27-year-old is already working on a new initiative to bring classes into people’s homes.
While those qualities were evident to Cohen during the interview process, he would not have taken the job if it didn’t feel right. So when he came for his Shabbat visit in March, he tried to determine if the Main Line synagogue could become his home, he said. And during services, meals and conversations, he felt a “warmth” from the congregants in attendance. They were excited about the Cohens’ visit.
“We found people we wanted to be with and people who wanted to be with us,” he said.
Cohen did not accept his offer with a promise of replacing Shmidman down the line. The head rabbi started at LMS in 2008 and is still in his prime, according to his new protégé. So, for the younger rabbi, the job was a place to start, learn and grow. And he is doing all three so far.
Cohen said his job description is “very long.” He is handling sermons and teaching classes, including a family learning course after Shabbat every Saturday night. He is making himself available for congregants’ life cycle events and for their questions about Jewish law. He’s also just trying to meet and speak with as many people as possible.
“There’s something exciting about it,” the young rabbi said. “There’s a lot of potential.”
Ezra and Tova Cohen have been married for a little over a year and do not yet have kids. She is still in nursing school at Columbia University and commuting to New York City once or twice a week. The husband and wife are young and figuring it out. And outside of his job, they are not tied or settled down. Cohen said they will probably have a conversation about their long-term future in 6-10 months.
But the young rabbi is already doing what he wants to do. He grew up in an Orthodox household and was always committed to studying Talmud. Then as a freshman at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, he kept coming back to psychology and Judaic studies as possible majors.
“I said, ‘What is it about them?’ I thought about it and realized they were just a proxy for the two things I loved most: the Torah and people,” Cohen explained. “I want to engage and interact with Torah in a serious way. I want to engage and interact with people in a serious way. I said, ‘I guess I want to be a rabbi.’ And I never looked back.”
That was in 2015, and Cohen’s love for both has only grown, he said.
“I think Torah is very deep and the more you poke and prod, the deeper you realize it is,” Cohen added. “And I’m increasingly mesmerized by it.” JE