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Ridgefield rabbi takes the helm at Yale’s Slifka Center

By Cindy Mindell

Rabbi Leah Cohen

NEW HAVEN – Rabbi Leah Cohen, who for the past 13 years served as spiritual leader of Temple B’nai Chaim in Georgetown, is the new executive director and senior Jewish chaplain at the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale. Cohen, who lives in Ridgefield, joins the Slifka Center’s rabbinical team that includes Howard M. Holtzmann Jewish Chaplain James Ponet, Noah Cheses, and Megan Doherty.

Rabbi Ponet stepped away from his administrative duties at Slifka last summer to focus on his current pastoral and scholarly role.

At B’nai Chaim, Cohen led the Reform congregation through a transformative period of growth and the construction of a new facility. Prior to becoming a rabbi, Cohen worked in the healthcare industry in product management, marketing and strategic planning for companies such as W.L. Gore, Becton Dickinson, and FHP Healthcare in the U.S. and Asia for more than a decade. She received her BA in international studies from American University in 1982, and earned a Masters in international management from American Graduate School of International Management in 1984. She completed her Masters in Hebrew Letters in 1998 and was ordained from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 2000. Currently she is pursuing her Doctorate in ministry.

Cohen says that she accepted the Slifka Center position for three reasons. “First, this is an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work in such an unusual setting with brilliant students, faculty, and staff, in an institution with a sense of tradition and an openness to change, in a larger community which supports and participates in a richly diverse Jewish life, an experience too wonderful to overlook,” she says. “Secondly, this position requires a specific set of skills that match my own professional background and personal interests. It requires me to be a compassionate leader to my new community, a responsible manager of the resources entrusted to me, a visionary in building on the strengths of this well-established center, a teacher who enjoys learning from and studying with young people, a lover of Judaism and Jews across all streams, and a builder of bridges to people outside the Jewish faith to work for the common good of humanity. These are the things I am most passionate about and which I have experienced a measure of success. These are the areas to which I have devoted myself and which this job ideally requires of me.”

In addition, Cohen’s daughter will enter Swarthmore College in the fall. “I too will be a freshman as I embark on my new campus,” Cohen says. “This opportunity opened up at exactly the right transitional time in my life as we both prepare to start the next chapter.”

Cohen says that she hopes to provide an intellectually stimulating, spiritually open, and emotionally safe space at Slifka where students can “delve into the treasure-chest of Judaism.”

“I have been so impressed with the students I have met already and look forward to meeting many more,” she says. “I know that Judaism has much to offer, excite, and challenge young people at this critical time in their lives. Just as they are growing so wonderfully in their academic, social, and emotional spheres during their college years, I aspire to positively impact their spiritual and religious development too.

It is all part of the package of what it means to grow and mature.”

While Cohen does not yet know what specific issues Jewish Yalies may face, there are several experiences that many American Jewish college students experience, she says.

“There are all the things that any college student faces – learning about themselves,  becoming self-differentiated from their families, and beginning to master some professional and life skills. I hope that I can be a positive role model, a good counselor, and a trusted adult to help navigate these necessary transitions,” she says. “I also feel that there are issues that any Jewish college student faces from the topic of Israel, to defining what role Judaism plays in their current and future lives. I look forward to being a resource and sounding board to students as they tackle the tough issues of being young and Jewish today.”

In addition, Cohen hopes to be a supportive presence for students navigating the issues specific to an institution like Yale. “These students have the pressure of studying at an elite university, the expectation of excellence, the assumptions of success, and a strong commitment to service,” Cohen says. “These are heavy burdens, but they do not need to be borne alone. First and foremost, my goal is that Slifka Center will be a place for students to be nurtured and enriched. I hope to play an important role in that process individually and by helping to create the kind of environment that supports our students.”

Comments? email cindym@jewishledger.com.

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