A Lesson from My Rabbi

When I learned that I would have the pleasure to serve a second summer as Rockdale Temple’s Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati rabbinic fellow, I was beyond excited for the opportunity. I foresaw a summer leading prayer and learning alongside the fabulously gifted Rabbi Meredith Kahan, while Senior Rabbi Sissy Coran enjoyed a much deserved sabbatical. Sadly, that summer would never come to be. In the Spring of 2020, Rockdale Temple suffered a devastating loss, that of our beloved senior rabbi, Rabbi Sissy Coran (z″l). In the midst of our grief, the summer of 2020 saw Rockdale Temple onboard a new executive director and a new education director, all while Rabbi Kahan took on additional stress and responsibility of acting senior rabbi. Needless to say, the congregation faced significant challenges in addition to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Rabbi Coran shared with me many pieces of wisdom during the course of my fellowship. I would like to distill my fellowship and honor her memory both by sharing with you one of them. 

With a little bit of luck and the kindness of Rabbi Jan Katzew, I was blessed to spend two summers as the Jewish Foundation Rabbinic Fellow for Rockdale Temple. I learned a lot during my first summer working with Rabbi Coran and Rabbi Kahan, and they fast became treasured mentors. Even after I completed my fellowship , I would frequently reach out to them as I navigated my first year as a solo student rabbi. One such time, I was rushing through the airport on my way home from a weekend serving my student pulpit in southern Louisiana. I had just made it through security and received a call from a congregant: her father, who had been ill for a while, was not expected to last the night. Her questions came in rapid-fire succession: “What should I do?” “What should I say?” “Why now?” I froze…what else could I do besides offer her my condolences? What could I, as a second-year rabbinical student, offer to this woman in her time of need? With as calm a tone as I could manage, I told her that I was walking between terminals and assured her that I would call back as soon as I was settled at my gate. I ended the call and immediately dialed Rabbi Coran. In a matter of minutes, Rabbi Coran managed to calm me down and taught me a lesson that I’ll treasure for the rest of my life. 

When she answered the phone, I laid out the situation and asked, “What do I say?”

“Just say the Shema,” she counseled me. “Take their hands, if you’re able, and say the Shema.” I pushed back, letting her know that the family in question wasn’t particularly observant—“…yet they called the student rabbi,” she retorted. I don’t remember her exact words, but the gist was that, in these moments, the most I could offer my congregant is the emotional space to engage with their feelings. As I’ve come to learn, the recitation of the Shema has a way of breaking down barriers, whether due to its familiarity or the literal meaning of the prayer. 

As the pandemic raged and I took on the responsibilities of my second fellowship at Rockdale, Rabbi Coran’s teaching was never far from my mind. I drew on her wisdom as I comforted the child of a COVID victim and when I lost my own grandmother later in the summer. When a beloved member of our Shabbat Torah study group passed suddenly in August, Rabbi Coran’s teaching was there to remind me that it was okay to pause and “just say the Shema.” When faced with a year like 2020, we as (future) clergy too often jump to provide a solution to the problem. We saw this in the way that congregations responded to the pandemic by overprogramming, a solution that led many clergy-folk to pre-High Holy Day burnout. Rabbi Coran taught me that in these moments when we feel pressure to say the right thing or give the right answer, our congregants are often best served by taking a deep breath and saying the Shema. Zecher tsadiq livracha, may Rabbi Coran’s memory be a blessing.

Ben Rosen is a third-year rabbinical student on the historic Cincinnati campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He currently serves as student rabbi for the United Hebrew Congregation of Joplin, Missouri. 

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