New rabbi having a blast at Berkeley congregation

Describing his first Rosh Hashanah as new rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel, Yonatan Cohen came up with an apt adjective.

“It was a blast.”

Shofar blowing aside, Cohen is all smiles at the Orthodox shul in Berkeley.

When Rabbi Yair Silverman and his family made aliyah to Israel this summer, it left the door open for the recently ordained Cohen.

Though this year marks his High Holy Days debut, he’s been setting the stage for weeks. “I came a month early to spend time with members,” says the 27-year-old rabbi. “I was doing four coffees a day. It gave me an opportunity to get to know people. The first time I stood on the bimah, I already knew the life stories of so many.”

Over those early weeks, Cohen also spent time with Silverman learning the ropes and familiarizing himself with the ways of Beth Israel. He says he was struck right away with the congregation’s unique culture.

“There’s something you feel when you walk into the shul,” says Cohen. “The one thing people come back to is: This is home. This is family.”

Cohen was born in Israel, and for his first 10 years, he lived outside of Tel Aviv. Though his parents were not especially observant, his grandparents were. “My earliest religious experiences came from my grandparents,” he recalls. “For them Judaism is much more an organic experience passed down from generation to generation.”

At age 10, he moved to Montreal with his parents. Missing his grandparents and their religious influence, Cohen began seeking spiritual meaning on his own. “When I was 11, I told my parents ‘We need to say Kiddush.'”

Over time, he gradually became more observant, attending Jewish summer camps, aligning with the Masorti (Conservative) movement in Israel and leading teen trips to the Holy Land. He also majored in Jewish studies at McGill University in Montreal.

Still, something was missing.

“I was living an Orthodox life, yet my community was not Orthodox,” he says. “The discrepancies became painful. I was making compromises on my personal religious integrity.”

Eventually, he enrolled in Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the Orthodox yeshiva in New York headed by Rabbi Avi Weiss. Cohen remembers the first time he met the esteemed rabbi. “His first question was, ‘Tell me about your dream.’ That permeates the yeshiva. It’s a place of dreamers, people with a collective vision for all of Judaism.”

Cohen’s partner in that vision is his wife, Frayda Gonshor, also of Montreal. He credits her with influencing him as a person, a Jew and as a rabbi. “She had the greatest impact on me in terms of believing there is a place in Orthodoxy to be committed to halachah [Jewish law] and expanding opportunities for women in a full partnership with God.”

About six months ago, Cohen applied for the head rabbi position at Beth Israel. Though he had never visited Northern California before, he was enchanted from the start, both by the synagogue community and by the Bay Area.

Recalling his interview, Cohen says the first few days he was kept close to the shul. But one Sunday morning, he required a day off. “It was the morning of the big Darfur rally [in San Francisco]. We were very involved with American Jewish World Service, and wanted to go. That was my first impression of San Francisco. Every fourth person we met was Jewish. I thought, ‘This is home.'”

As for his new synagogue home, Cohen understands he needs to take things slowly at first until he gets his sea legs. “For the last few years,” he says, “the focus went into building the new shul, a beautiful building that captures the warmth of the community. Our next step is building the internal life of the shul.”

So far that has included his Thursday night Torah study, which has been packing them in for weeks now. “I’m attracted to rabbinic narrative,” he adds, “using literary analysis and discovering latent messages to understand the message and vision of the rabbis. My priority is always a return to the text. Everything flows from there.”

Now that he’s found his new home with the Beth Israel community in Berkeley, the rabbi plans on going with the flow for the foreseeable future.

Says Cohen: “It’s wonderful to actually be here and get to put into practice everything I was taught at my yeshiva. It’s an incredible community.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.