Riverdale–Rabbi Dovid Cohen has recently been appointed the Orthodox Union’s newest Regional Director for the Manhattan, Westchester, Bronx and Connecticut areas. He is enthusiastic and grateful regarding his new appointment and its inherent opportunities. Being the new Regional Director, he feels, is a wonderful opportunity to connect to congregants not only on a traditionally rabbinical level, but in a newly open-minded approach towards synagogue life in general. This is, he said, something dear to his heart. Rabbi Cohen certainly knows the importance of integrating shul life into all aspects of a community–from listening to congregants’ worries, to giving inspiring lectures, to creating fun and engaging events that will have a lasting impact on the congregations that he reaches out to.
Indeed, the Rabbi’s varied career will no doubt help him out in the day-to-day management required of such a position. He has served as Rabbi of the Young Israel of the West Side since 2006, having been ordained by Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) in 1997. He also attended the Columbia Law School and completed his Juris Doctor degree in 1999. He left the legal profession in 2004 and moved to Israel in order to further pursue his rabbinic studies at an elite kollel affiliated with the Mirrer Yeshiva.
Rabbi Cohen now lives on the Upper West Side, with his wife Ruchi (Eisenberg) Cohen–daughter of the Chief Rabbi of Vienna–and their four children, but fact that he still lives in the diaspora was hard on him. “I have lived in Israel for five years of my life,” the Rabbi said, “two years post-high school learning and another almost three years when I was first married. Our two oldest children were born in Israel. Most of our extended family still resides in Israel and we try and visit as frequently as possible. Transitioning back to the USA., almost 10 years ago now, was difficult.”
One of Rabbi Cohen’s main objectives, therefore, will be to bring back a comfort level in the relationships between rabbis and their congregants here in the shuls because, as he said, “The value system is different and what is respected is different. In the environment we lived in, Torah was the currency of value and you were assessed based on your connection and knowledge of it. The emphasis in America is more on the physical world and accumulation of wealth. This was certainly an adjustment for me. It is a challenge to bring ‘spirituality’ back into the synagogue, considering all the ‘pulls’ of American life.”
And who is better suited to addressing such a major challenge than Rabbi Cohen? In addition to the aforementioned achievements, he has an MS in counseling from the University of North Texas with a concentration in family therapy, and has a private practice on the Upper West Side. He has also been a mashgiach in various colleges, an Adjunct Professor of Jewish Law and Philosophy at both Stern & Touro Colleges, and is currently a rabbinical judge for the Beit Din of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA). He has served as a scholar-in-residence in many communities throughout North America, has contributed to various Jewish publications and has completed his first book, entitled, We’re Almost There: Living With Patience, Perseverance and Purpose, published by Mosaica Press, soon to be released. His days are filled with a love of helping others, a desire to generate positive interconnections between the rabbinate and the shuls they serve and making Judaism more accessible for the people that they serve. Rabbi Cohen’s enthusiasm for such Godly work seems to have stemmed, in large part, from the influence of his grandfather, obm.
Having grown up seeing his grandfather lead congregations in three separate shuls, Rabbi Cohen has always felt comfortable and at home in that atmosphere. “I have always loved the shul and particularly davening,” he said. “My maternal grandfather, Rabbi Meir Felman z”l, was a pulpit rabbi in three different shuls and was also engaged and involved on the more national level. In fact, his first pulpit was in Englewood, NJ, which is now under the leadership of Rabbi Shmuel Goldin. It was much smaller back then. I used to love seeing pictures of him in the White House, meeting with Presidents and advocating for our people. He was also a passionate speaker and a prodigious fundraiser. To the degree that I admired him and hoped to emulate him, my career trajectory has offered opportunities to have a narrow, more focused, impact and now hopefully a much broader one. Ultimately, I see myself as a “networker” and a “connector.” Said Rabbi Cohen, “My daughter calls me a schmoozer!”
While Rabbi Cohen looks forward to engaging with the various communities by giving lectures, setting up programs and lending a listening ear to colleagues and congregants alike, he knows that he has a big job ahead of him. To this end, he feels that his biggest challenge will be in gaining credence with the community members and leaders with whom he will be working. Although the OU isn’t a new organization, he knows that perhaps he will have to reinterpret some differing perceptions about the organization and its work. “There will be a challenge to…re-awaken the community to the latent potential in a stronger, more consistent relationship with this critical national organization,” he said. He also wants to raise more awareness of OU programs such as Yachad and NCSY. While many communities already benefit from these programs, there are many more that do not. Rabbi Cohen had said that widespread recognition about them isn’t as prevalent as he would like and he wants to bring such programs to the forefront of community life, thereby enhancing their importance in all arenas. He is particularly invested in Yachad, because, he said, “As a parent of a child with special needs, the message of inclusion is something that deeply resonates with me. I’ve been involved with Yachad for many years now and it is a privilege to be an advocate and travel the country and speak on behalf of Yachad. I also hope to help Yachad in the realm of development and tap into new sources of funding for a division of the OU near and dear to my heart.”
The ability to work in kiruv and to engage in open communication with youth, too, is of particular import. To the extent that he can, Rabbi Cohen looks forward to connecting with these populations in order to draw all types of congregants together within the larger framework of the community shul. “Youth is key to the vibrancy of a shul and something the OU is well versed in,” Rabbi Cohen said. “Kiruv involves those that are close as well as those a little farther away. To the degree that I can help create a more cohesive region and bring together diverse people and ideas, I hope to be a ‘mekarev.’”
True, Rabbi Cohen is mostly focused on working with Orthodox congregants and congregations to start with because, as he said, he is working under the OU, but he is also going to be working with the UJA Federation and other multi-denominational organizations when needed. Thus, when it benefits both the OU and other organizations, he will be in contact with organizations both to the “left” and to the “right” of the OU in their approaches. Rabbi Cohen’s background thus makes him well equipped to handle such situations.
Furthermore, because Rabbi Cohen is aware that today, people are not as willing to approach their pulpit rabbis with their concerns as they once were, he hopes to reinvigorate these important connections through his work at the OU. “We live in a period, where on the one hand, trust in the rabbi and the rabbinate has been eroded, while concurrently, rabbis are being taken advantage of and treated with less respect than traditionally allotted to them. These points may or may not necessarily be intertwined. I hope to be a listening ear to my colleagues who need support, while also bolstering the honor and respect of the rabbinate by being a Kiddush Hashem in my representation of the OU,” said Rabbi Cohen.
By Bracha K. Sharp