PROVIDENCE – Rachel Cohn became the director of youth education and engagement at Temple Emanu-El a year ago. As she enters her second year at the temple, she is excited about major additions to the Religious School program for the 2023-24 school year.
In a recent interview, Cohn spoke about her background and the programs she is planning.
Please tell us about yourself.
I was born in Skokie, Illinois, and grew up attending Tot Shabbat services and listening to the music of Debbie Friedman. During my undergraduate studies at Brown University, I discovered the joys of Providence, and went on to complete a Master of Arts in Teaching in secondary education at Brown.
I accepted a teaching position at a middle school in California after graduation. During that time, I spent a summer in Israel studying at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, and totally got hooked on Jewish text study! This eventually led me to the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, in Los Angeles, where I began my rabbinical studies. I am continuing them through the Academy for Jewish Religion.
My passion for Jewish education has been inspired by the many Jewish movements, teachers and organizations that have shaped me: The Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center and the Adamah Farm, Pardes, Wilderness Torah and more. I hope to imbue my students with a love of Torah and passion for social justice; in a nutshell, being a mensch in the world. I strive for each student to feel seen and valued in our community. It’s truly a gift to work with young people!
How does it feel to be back in Providence, and how was your first year at Temple Emanu-El?
I am thrilled to be back in Rhode Island with my husband, Andrew, and my children, Aryeh and Meira. My first year at Temple Emanu-El has been wonderful. People have been so kind and welcoming, and have helped us get settled. I am grateful for the support of the clergy, the board, parents, volunteers and our talented and committed teaching staff. The students are creative, funny, thoughtful and insightful. They are eager learners and great people. I am looking forward to expanding on the program already in place.
What program additions are you planning for the upcoming religious school year?
We are starting a pre-K class so children as young as 4 years can join our program. I’m so excited for the energy and wonder these young learners will bring to our community.
We are also excited to offer teen learning past B’nai Mitzvah age. On Tuesday afternoons, we will have a “Lounge & Learn” program, where teens can come to socialize with their friends after school and then have an hour of learning about topics in social justice and Judaism. I hope they will be able to connect real needs and movements for social change in Providence – like food security and homelessness – with the words and values of our tradition.
We are also adjusting the schedule to support our learning goals. To help with B’nai Mitzvah preparation, sixth- and seventh-graders (and third- to fifth-graders who would like to opt in) are learning on Shabbat instead of on Sundays. This change will give them a chance to learn more about Shabbat prayer and community-building in a very hands-on way. By the time they reach B’nai Mitzvah age, we hope these young people will be very comfortable as leaders in our community.
We are continuing to have a full-school Shabbat B’Yahad (Shabbat Together) one Shabbat morning a month. This get-together is a great chance for parents and caregivers to connect with each other and learn together with their children.
Lastly, I’m working on designing a “maker space” where students will be able to do crafts and movement-based activities related to their learning. For example, they could design the Tower of Babel, as they envision it from the text and see how strong it is. Or students could use recycled materials to design Purim carnival games that are more eco-friendly. The idea is to support their imagination and creativity in making Jewish texts and ideas come alive for them.
Do families have to be Temple Emanu-El members to send their children to the religious school?
No. All children are welcome to join our program.
For families that live outside of Providence, are there ways to connect remotely?
Students in our mid-week Hebrew classes will have an option to learn in small groups on Zoom, facilitated by Online Jewish Learning, an organization that specializes in online Jewish education.
For more information about Temple Emanu-El’s Religious School Program, and to register, contact Rachel Cohn, director of youth education and engagement, at email@example.com, or call the temple office, 401-331-1616.
ARLENE S. SIMON is a board member of Temple Emanu-El, in Providence.