I first met Alli during Zumba class, and had to back up to give the girl space because she knew EVERY MOVE to EVERY SONG! It didn’t take long though to find out there was so much more to Ms. Cohen than endless wicked dance moves.
For the past few years, Alli has dedicated her life and studies to become a congregational rabbi for the Reform Jewish community. This is a major accomplishment, and I was lucky enough to interview her about what it takes to become a distinguished leader in the Jewish faith.
For those of us who don’t know, what does it mean to become a rabbi? What type of responsibilities will you have?
A rabbi is an ordained Jewish leader and educator. As a congregational rabbi, some of the responsibilities I will have will be leading services for Shabbat (the name of the Jewish Sabbath), teaching Jewish education for all ages, officiating life cycle events and providing pastoral care for the community.
Walk us through a day in your life. What’s it like to be a student preparing to become a rabbi?
Monday through Thursday, my days are full of classes, interspersed with finding time to complete my homework, research and reading. In addition, as a Rabbinic Intern at a synagogue, each week I meet with the head rabbi to assist in planning services and the upcoming events. I also prepare for adult education classes and take time visiting the sick, elderly and housebound. Preparing to become a rabbi is a lot of work, but it is also very rewarding. It is a privilege to be part of the lives of others during the happy, the sad, and every day in between.
What influenced you to become a rabbi?
“I saw the many ways one can impact the lives of others, and I wanted to be that positive force.”
Growing up in a small family, my synagogue had always been a second home to me, an extended family, and I want to be able to create that temple-family for others. When I was younger, my mother volunteered as the Caring Community Chair at our temple, and she would help families set up their homes for shiva (a week of mourning following the death of a loved one). Although I didn’t know it until years later, seeing the difference her presence made during times of grief is one of the main influences for why I wanted to become a rabbi. I saw the many ways one can impact the lives of others, and I wanted to be that positive force.
But I didn’t always know I wanted to be a rabbi. Since I love to sing, I originally thought I wanted to be a cantor. Majoring in Sociology, I was also interested in social work. After much thought, I finally put all of my passions together and realized I could be a singing rabbi. As a rabbi, one acts as a social worker, as well as an educator, and I realized that this role would allow me to put all of my passions into one.
What kind of education and preparation does it take to become a rabbi?
I attend the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, which is the Jewish seminary for Reform Judaism. Just like in Christianity, there are different denominations in Judaism, with Reform Judaism being one of them. In Reform Judaism, women are permitted to become rabbis, and my class is actually about 50% women. Still, it has been a long journey to get where we are today with the allowance of women in the rabbinate.
My school is five years, with the first year of study spent in Israel. Everyone begins by studying on the Jerusalem campus, and then, we choose a stateside campus in New York, Los Angeles, or Cincinnati.
Each year is filled with both a full academic course load as well as professional development. In addition to our courses, we have fellowships (that we call “sacred service-learning”) in Cincinnati that allow us to gain hands-on experience in the areas of Jewish education, communal life and leadership. We also have student pulpits in which we serve synagogues all over the Midwest that cannot afford a full-time rabbi. I’ve served congregations in Texarkana, TX and Sioux Falls, SD. I am now a Rabbinic Intern for Temple Sholom, a congregation right here in Cincinnati.
What has been one of the most important things you’ve learned along the way?
While many people may envision their rabbi or priest preaching from the pulpit, one of the most important skills I’ve learned along the way is not how to be a better speaker, but how to be a better listener. The past years I have gone from hearing just what is said on the surface level to being able to hear the unspoken words and emotions as well.
Can you name your greatest success (or something you’re most proud of)?
Women of the Wall is a pluralistic Jewish organization that strives for women’s equality and freedom of religious expression at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Each month, the group goes to the Western Wall to pray out loud, with prayer shawls and a Torah, but they are often met with resistance. The Western Wall is a public site but is run by Ultra-Orthodox Jews. In their denomination, women cannot wear prayer shawls because it is considered “a man’s garment,” nor can they read from a Torah scroll. Therefore, Women of the Wall is often met with resistance and protests.
“I was ready to be arrested wholeheartedly for what I believe in.”
During my last month of living in Israel, I had the honor of leading the monthly service at the Western Wall. On that day, May 10th, 2013, Women of the Wall prayed with prayer shawls for the first time without any detainments. Three hundred women showed up to pray as thousands of Ultra-Orthodox Jews protested against us. The police had formed a human barricade, each officer linking arms. They were not arresting us; they were guarding us, allowing us to pray in peace. There was yelling, whistling, pushing, shoving and even chair throwing from thousands of Ultra-Orthodox, and at any moment, it looked as though they were going to attack those praying. [Read more about the attacks here.]
I was ready to be arrested wholeheartedly for what I believe in: for religious equality, for freedom of religious expression, and for religious pluralism. Although I knew of the pandemonium occurring simultaneously, from where I stood, there were moments of peace and even silent prayer. I felt protected by the family of women and male supporters around me, and I knew that what I stood for was correct. I was no longer afraid. It was then that I realized the true strength and bravery we had together, standing for a greater purpose. I am proud to stand up for what I believe in, and I pray for the day when all Jews will be able to pray together in Israel.
What do you do in your off time?
In my off time, I love to Zumba and horseback ride, but most of all, I love to travel back to New Jersey to spend time with my mother.
If you were magically given 3 more hours per day, what would you do with them?
Well, as a student, my initial response would be to get more sleep or get more work done, but I would prefer to have more time to spend with friends.
What would you say to other women interested in becoming rabbis?
I would say, “All the more power to you! It’s a profession to be proud of.”
What does the phrase “Strong is Our Sexy” mean to you?
“Strong is Our Sexy” means knowing that you can do anything you put your heart to. It means having confidence in yourself, the strength to speak up even when it might be scary, and the courage to take the road less travelled. In society today, I believe “Strong is Our Sexy” is about empowering women to see themselves as equals, but even more, as women who can do anything we put our hearts to. The way others will see us should begin with how we see ourselves. When we see ourselves in a positive light and reach for nothing less than the goals we set, we embody the phrase “Strong is Our Sexy,” and that is attractive.
I couldn’t agree more.
Fighting for what she believes in, caring about her community, all while pursuing her own dreams and passions. Alli is a driving force who I KNOW will make an inspirational rabbi for everyone today, as well as future generations to come.