I was born in Philadelphia in 1958 in the Mount Airy section of the city - not the hip, multi-ethnic "West Mount Airy" part of the Philly of today, but on Michener Avenue amidst a sprawling grid of post-WW II row houses occupied by Jewish and Italian baby boomers (like me) and their parents. They had moved there from immigrant neighborhoods like Strawberry Mansion.
The first house I lived in looked a lot like the photos to the left. Two adjacent homes shared the same front stoop: the front doors were next to each other. Each house had its own cement patio area (where I once fell while playing and knocked out my two front teeth). Each house also had a steeply sloping front lawn, ideal for playing "Red Light Green Light" because it was nearly impossible to "freeze" on that incline. Another odd feature of the neighborhood: there were no garages out front. Instead, the houses on adjacent streets were built with their backs toward each other. There was a long alley that ran down the back side of the houses, and it was there, in back of the houses, that the garages were located. (Here I feel I must also mention that each block had a small alley in the middle of the block that bisected the block-length buildings. We called it the "breezeway," and I mention it only so that the word isn't lost to future generations...)
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I remember when they came into my Hebrew School classroom and told us that we were switching from Ashkenazi to Sephardic Hebrew pronunciation. Yikes! That was around 1968, when I was in 5th grade.
School Days
I began my formal education at the John F. McCloskey School. The Jewish student and teacher population of the Philly public schools was so high back then that the schools closed on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
My parents, second generation children of Russian and Polish Jewish immigrants, spoke Yiddish3 at home (when they didn't want my brother and me to know what they were saying) and I'm grateful to have been raised with exposure to that wonderful culture. They were founding members of West Oak Lane Jewish Community Center, a Conservative synagogue. Another formative experience: I sang in the High Holy Day Choir along with my brother and Dad from the time I was 8 until I was in my early 20's when the synagogue, victim of changing neighborhood demography, went out of existence as I was about to graduate high school.5
Sadly, in the late 1960's and early 1970's, "white flight" hit Mount Airy. Many of the previous residents moved, either to "The Northeast" part of Philly, or to a variety close in suburbs. When I was in 5th grade, my family moved out of Mount Airy and into a split-level home in a Philly suburb called Abington, where we were informed by our new next door neighbor that the previous owner of our new house had "broken the block" by being the first person to sell their house to Jews. (Welcome to the neighborhood, indeed.)
I attended Overlook Elementary School, Huntingdon Junior High and finally Abington High.
For my Jewish education, I went to the Hebrew High School department of Gratz College - ten hours per week after school and on Sundays.
Tip: Hovering your mouse pointer over the images brings up a caption.
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Chicago, The Band
Around the time of "Chicago V." When Terry Kath was still shredding, Pete Cetera had the power tenor and you could still hear the horns. Before all the David Foster power ballads.
Band Nerd
In high school I was a major Band Nerd; I'd been playing trumpet since 3rd grade. I entertained the fantasy of making my living playing trumpet until my senior year in high school. This seems like a good place to point out that my very first rock concert was "Chicago" at The Spectrum arena. (Bruce Springsteen was the opening act and was practically booed off the stage - his incarnation as The Boss6 would take a few more years.) My friends and I also went to see Emerson, Lake & Palmer at The Spectrum - the "Works, Volume I" tour where they traveled with a symphony orchestra.2 All we brass players were also huge fans of the late, great Maynard Ferguson. Additionally, the high school (and college) soundtrack7 to the lives of my pals and I was provided by Steely Dan8, whose music still thrills me to this day.
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La Salle University College Hall
Largely a commuter school back then. I rode the "S" Bus to and from school every day.
Jewish Boy, Catholic School
Graduating high school in 1976 (when everything, including our year book, had a Bicentennial theme) I went on to La Salle College (now La Salle University) in Philadelphia, a liberal Catholic college run by the Christian Brothers that my older brother, Bob, had also attended. I majored in Biology as he had done, but once I figured out that I didn't want to be a doctor, I switched my major to Psychology.
I like to say (because it's true) that I probably wouldn't have become a Rabbi had I not gone to La Salle. For one thing, it was a place where religious searching was respected. Additionally, many of my friends had gone to Catholic parochial schools their entire lives and I was the first Jewish friend they'd ever had. They were always asking me questions about what being Jewish was about. When I realized that I enjoyed answering their questions about Judaism, the "maybe-I-should-be-a-rabbi" light started go to on.
My involvement with LaSalle Hillel also connected a lot of dots. I attended the National Hillel Summer Institute several times at the B'nai Brith camp in Starlight, Pennsylvania, where, for the first time, I met cool rabbis who I found fascinating and inspiring. We had a very small but active Hillel-Jewish Student Union in those days but we got a lot of support in our endeavors from the Campus Ministry office at La Salle. Our Hillel Advisor for a time was Sheila Peltz Weinberg. I would later reconnect with Sheila as a Rabbi and faculty member of the Institute For Jewish Spirituality and the premiere teacher of Jewish Mindfulness Meditation in America today. When I finally "came out" about wanting to go to Rabbinical School, the people in my life (besides my parents) who were most excited about my chosen path were the Christian Brothers whom I'd had as teachers. They felt that the fact that I wanted to be a Rabbi meant that they, as Catholics, had succeeded. I've always cherished that.
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Jerome K. Davidson
This is the person who taught me how to be a Rabbi.
Rabbinic School
There is a very long story to tell about how I, a kid from a Conservative Jewish background, ended up at HUC, the Reform Jewish seminary, but I won't drag you through it. Suffice it to say that HUC seemed the place I'd be optimistically most happy (or pessimistically least miserable) for five to six years of my life. I was ordained at HUC in New York in 1985 and took a position as Assistant Rabbi of Temple Beth-El of Great Neck, NY. I served there until 1991 under Rabbi Jerome K. Davidson (now Rabbi Emeritus), a tremendous preacher and inspiring social activist who was the best mentor a newly minted Rabbi could want.
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Saundra and Toddler Shira, circa 2002.
In 1989, I met my future wife, Saundra Goldman, who at the time was a Curator at the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park in Lincoln, Massachusetts. (Her mother set us up on a blind date.) After our engagement in 1990, I began to look for a new position.
While at HUC, I'd been recruited to serve at Education Specialst at URJ Greene Family Camp, the Southwest Regional Reform Jewish summer camp in the teeming metropolis of Bruceville, Texas. During the summers of 1982 and 1983, I, an East Coast Boy through and through, fell in love with Texas and Texas Jews.4 That's why I got excited when the job at Congregation Beth Israel in Austin opened up. In June of 1991, we packed up our belongings, got married in Saundra's native Bay Area, and drove the 1700 miles from New York to Austin. We've been here ever since. In 2001, we were blessed with the arrival of Shira Lillian Folberg.
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Yep, that's me.
I am proud to say that Congregation Beth Israel has grown into an exceptionally friendly and open community. Everyone who walks through the door is greeted warmly and without judgment. Our Sanctuary foyer is named after Walter Cohen of blessed memory. Walter was our perennial greeter on Friday nights. No matter who you were or how many piercings and tattoos you might (or might not) have, Walter1 was thrilled to make your acquaintance. We strive to emulate his example every day.
Rabbi means "my teacher," and teaching is at the core of what I do. Nothing makes me happier than being in a classroom. I enjoy students of all ages, although I confess to a special joy in working with teenagers.
I am very interested in the work being done exploring the intersection of Judaism and mindfulness practice. My time in the Rabbis5 cohort of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality Leadership Program has had a very significant impact on how I see my rabbinic role. And I'm excited to be participating in the 3rd Cohort of the IJS Jewish Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Training program.
I'm proud of Congregation Beth Israel's commitment to Tikkun Olam and community service. We are the only Austin Jewish congregation to host homeless families on site through the Interfaith Hospitality Network. Our volunteers have also created Circle Of Friends: on Thursday mornings, family members caring for their loved ones with Alzheimer's Disease can bring that person to Congregation Beth Israel for a morning of of singing, games and other activities; the care giver gets a much needed break from their responsibilities and the family member has a great time.
I have been blessed to mentor a number of gifted young Rabbis and Cantors at Congregation Beth Israel: Cantor Jaime Shpall, Cantor David Reinwald, Rabbi Elizabeth Dunsker, Rabbi Ben Sternman, Rabbi Cookie Lea Olshein and Rabbi Sam Rose. I've learned at least as much from them as they've learned from me.
I've now been with Congregation Beth Israel long enough that former bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah students are coming back to ask me to conduct their weddings and name their babies. It's hard to put into words how meaningful and satisfying that is.
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    Walter Cohen
    Of Blessed Memory

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    Well, not exactly...
    West Oak Lane Jewish Community Center didn't exactly disappear. It eventually merged with Beth Sholom Congregation of Elkins Park, PA, a suburb of Philadelphia. The large, Conservative congregation is famous for its landmark sanctuary building, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
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    High School Soundtrack
    My classmate, Mike Millenson, today a distinguished hematologist-oncologist, signed my Abington High Class of 1976 yearbook with the words, "Where did you get those shoes?"

    (וְהַמַּסְכִּילִם יָבִינוּ)

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