BENNINGTON — Rabbi Howard Cohen has been serving as interim rabbi at Congregation Beth El since last August.
He is a familiar presence in town, as he was the full-time rabbi at Congregation Beth El from 1994 to 2006. Since he left that post the congregation has had two other head rabbis, Joshua Boettiger and Jarah Greenfield.
Cohen is also chaplain of the Bennington Village Fire Department and an officer of the Eagle Hose Company.
For Congregation Beth El, Cohen works about 10 to 12 hours per week. He is currently on a one-year contract and it is an open question on both his and the leadership's end whether he will continue beyond that.
"It's a year by year, some of it depends on my effectiveness in the role of an interim and working with the board to prepare for their next step in terms of hiring a rabbi, a more permanent presence," he said. "Some of it depends on the availability of the right candidate."
The congregation is not currently doing a search for a permanent rabbi, he said. "Not yet."
How would he characterize the situation of the congregation when he took the interim post last Aug. 1?
"The community was struggling with having to re-imagine themselves as perhaps not being able to sustain or support a full-time rabbi," he said. "Organizations are not unlike people in that we when we have a change (in) what's normal, we have to deal with a new normal. Sometimes the adjustment process can leave people feeling like 'Oh, I don't have a fulltime rabbi.'" And other people going, 'No, this is good, it gives us more opportunities.'"
He added, "There's been a lot of transition over the last few years. The congregation is figuring it out, the leadership, there's some new board presidents and they're bringing some new organization and grappling with the future and developing a strategy to continue to transform the congregation to meet the needs of the community, a decade and a half into the 21st century."
Cohen didn't want to give the transition a letter grade. "It's hard work, it's hard work both for the congregation and for me, in terms of kind of grappling with the changing dynamics and I'd say rather than grading in terms of how well it's going, I'd say we're moving towards the goals that we want to move towards and the energy is building towards our objectives of having a stable community that's viable and meaningful to people — and available to them who want to seek out Judaism as a pathway."
One development that Cohen is excited about is the new Creative Academy of Judasim school. For a couple of years recently the congregation didn't feel it had a critical mass number of children to offer an education program, he said.
"We have about a half dozen young kids. When we created the idea for it this summer, we expected the kids would be older, but it's turned into like a lot of young kids — pre-school, first grade, second grade — younger than we expected," he said. "But it's a lot of fun. We meet once a week for about an hour."
Congregation Beth El belongs to the Reconstructionist Judaism movement. It draws members from the tri-state area of Vermont, New York and Massachusetts. Second home owners who are members come from as far away as New Jersey and Maryland. Cohen resisted giving an exact number of members, noting that membership in such religious bodies is a rather fluid thing these days.
"There are not a lot of choices here. If you're going to participate in a Jewish community, in an organized Jewish community, it might be North Adams, it might be Manchester," he said. "So there are a lot of people who are affiliated, they're supporters, they're friends of. And we're trying to move away from this idea of 'member, not member.' So that's why it's a little tricky to answer the question."
The work of an interim rabbi — or other interim clergy member, for that matter — is not necessarily to be popular. The role may require working "with the community for healing purposes, if that's needed," he said, and sometimes this process can be painful.
"And an interim should not sort of create a job around himself; an interim is there to help the community, provide the community with some of what it wants when there isn't a regular clergy and also make sure that any kind of dependency on that clergy doesn't develop," Cohen said. "An interim is only going to be there a short time, so they ask questions that sometimes people don't want to hear be asked. And sometimes they're good questions and sometimes an interim gets it wrong. It's kind of the reality of the job."
Cohen grew up in the Midwest. He came to New England originally to work with Outward Bound. "My first career was working for Outward Bound, and my last Outward Bound school was in Maine." From there, he went to rabbinical school in Philadelphia. His wife, Gail, works at the Molly Stark School in Bennington and they have three adult children.
Since 1990, he has led Burning Bush Adventures, a Jewish wildnerness guiding service, for which he mostly leads canoe trips for families in the summer, mostly in the Adirondacks. He has also run dogsled trips in the winter. The business "provides close encounters with God and Judaism through quality wilderness experiences," according to its website.
In addition to these activities, Cohen serves as a part-time rabbi for a congregation outside of Boston.
He had praise for the work of the leadership of Beth El. They are doing the necessary hard work of transition and succeeding in guiding the community.
"I think it's exciting what they're doing and I think they've been making important and tough decisions and I think they're moving totally in the right direction," he said. "Demographics are demographics. So it's not like people are falling out of the trees, and they've got a lot of responsibility, two facilities to maintain and be on top of."
There is the opportunity at the synagogue for a motivated non-clergy individual to take some initiative. "Beth El's the kind of community where people can really have an influence, somebody wants to participate in the Torah discussions and they can also be a facilitator of those if that's something they're interested in, if they have an idea about a program they want to cultivate," he said. "So there's a lot of room for lay leadership, lay involvement."
The office phone number for Congregation Beth El is 802-442-9645.