Commencement Address at Saddleback College

It was an honor to be a part of the Commencement Ceremony for Saddleback College 2016! You can watch my address to the graduates and faculty below. Sorry we can’t cut in only my speech. You’ll have to scroll to 43:00 minutes in. And yes, Saddleback spelled Temple Beth Sholom with an “A” – darn spell check!

Again, it was an honor to be a part of this special day!

(Scroll to  43:00 minutes in)

Originally found at

Cypress College Yom HaShoah

screen cypressThe candle, the silent flame that illuminates the darkness. So gentle, so fragile, but also so powerful.

Tonight, we remember the six million Jews, one and half million of whom were children, eleven million people in total, whose lives were so quickly extinguished for no other reason but power and hate. Tonight is Yom HaShoah. How many of us know what those words really mean? We call it Holocaust Memorial Day, but the Shoah means catastrophe, destruction. And it was just that, an attempt to destroy the Jewish people, to burn them out of collective memory and future.

Heidi CypressThe flame, so powerful a tool. It was used to burn books, to destroy buildings, to burn bodies in the crematoria, the smoke rising up to the heavens as a burnt offering. But this was not an offering God sought. God wept as God’s people were destroyed – any person, any religion, anyone whose life was so violently destroyed, this was and is a Shoah, a catastrophe beyond words and understanding.

Yet, here we are today, 71 years after the war came to an end. Here we are standing together to hold on to the sacred obligation, Never to Forget and Never Again. Words that come easily to our lips, yet there is still need for action in our world because the flame of hate still exists. Each of us here tonight, we have the power and the ability to make sure the world never forgets and to bring a reality to never again. If we didn’t believe it, then why would we even come together?

Some may be here out of curiosity: I’ve never experienced a Yom HaShoah program, I wonder what it will be like? Some come out of habit: Every year I seek out a Yom HaShoah program to hear the memories as I have done year after year. Some come out of obligation: I have to listen, I have to remember, for if I don’t who will?

Rabbi Hillel taught, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?”

Yom HaShoah is an opportunity to hold on to our history and remember the destruction, those who were murdered, and face a part of our history that is ugly and painful. If we don’t participate in this time of memorial, then who will? Who will remember and carry it on to the next generation? It is up to us to listen to the words of the survivors and carry forth their stories. It will not be too long into the near future when these witness’s voices will be silent. But we don’t do this only for ourselves. We do this for our world, our children, future generations – for if we only take this moment for ourselves, then what are we but voyeurs into a gruesome past. And if not now, if we don’t take these precious moments, we never will. Time moves too quickly and the intentions we create somehow get lost in the shuffle of life. So when? Now, now is the time that we remember, that we turn the flame from destruction to life reaffirming. That the flame illuminates our history and sets us on a brighter path for the future.

Our world is still filled with hate and misunderstanding. It is all of our responsibilities to be bearers of the torch for justice, compassion and respect. Genocide is not something of the past, it is happening in countries such as Syria, Darfur, Iraq, Somalia and the Sudan, these countries are all on genocide watch. And even here, in our own communities, hate exists. And the question looms, what are we doing about it? It is not enough to only be aware, it is important to be active participants.

Pirkei Avot, the Sayings of our Ancestors teaches, “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of creation, but neither are you free to desist from it.” We are given the gift of this beautiful world, yet, it is not complete. There is still so much left undone, so much loving kindness that we must put into this fragile planet and our communities. It is up to each of us to build and sustain justice, ensure equality for all, and maintain respect for all people, regardless of religion, race, or creed. We are the guarantors for future generations that they will have a world of peace, a world where they can live unafraid to be who they are and proud of the generations who came before them to ensure a life of shalom, wholeness and peace.

The single flame – in its simplicity it is beauty, in its depth it can burn. Tonight, as we are gathered here remembering the Shoah, the catastrophe that fell upon our people over 71 years ago, may we turn the flame of destruction into a light of peace. May we listen carefully to the words of our survivors and those who join us on this stage who share the light they entrust into each of us to become bearers of the light of justice, compassion, and respect.

May this be our light of blessing tonight and always.


Love Your Neighbor – suggestion or mitzvah?

This past weekend the KKK, who are alive and well in Orange County, announced they were going to hold a rally against immigration in Anaheim under their “white lives matter” theme. First, it’s sad that the KKK still have an active presence here in Orange County and this hatred against the Jewish community and other minorities is still a part of our world.

Counter protesters attended the rally and what happened next was shocking. The protesters instigated attacks against the KKK. First, I am by no means condoning the KKK, however, violence does not solve anything. I was shocked to hear that it was the protesters who started to attack the organizers of the event. As the attacks began, Professor Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino, stepped in and protected the national leader of the group. This was menshlekeit! Why did a Jewish man step in and protect someone who speaks hatred? Because, “Levin made it clear he was not protecting the Klansman on philosophical grounds, but rather to ensure that no one was killed in the violence. He later asked the KKK member how it felt to have his life saved by a Jewish man. “I thank you,” the Klansman replied. “I thank you.”

Our Torah teaches, “Do not stand idly by as your neighbor’s blood is shed.” (Leviticus 19:16) Professor Levin took this to heart and recognized that while this may not be his ideal neighbor, he could not stand by as others began to beat him.

door image 2Last week, one of our own families sent me a picture of what they found on the front door of their Anaheim Hills home. It says, “Blood Sucker Jew.” How would any of us feel to see this on our home? This family filed a police report as a hate crime and contacted the ADL. Still they are perplexed as to how could anyone in their neighborhood take such action as to deface someone’s home, let alone spew such hatred?

Unfortunately, over the past many weeks it has become more evident that there has been a loss of decency in how people treat one another.  People have easily forgotten to treat one another with compassion and respect. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” (Leviticus 19:18) the text is there as a clear reminder. Unfortunately, there is division, a separation in our society causing great intolerance.

We are a few weeks away from Purim, the holiday in which we are reminded how one evil person was filled with hate and vengeance and sought to destroy the Jewish people. The courage of one woman to speak out and not allow Haman to prevail is a reminder for us, generations later. If Esther did not reveal Haman’s plot to destroy the Jews,  Esther might have been spared because her Jewish identity was still undercover, but the Jewish people would have been destroyed. If we remain silent or indifferent to words and acts of hate, we are just as guilty as the perpetrators.

“Love you neighbor as yourself,” this is not a casual suggestion, it is is a mitzvah, a commandment in which each of us have the responsibility to speak out for a return to decency and respect for all. It is no easy task, but then again, this is not a task for one person alone. Even all the Jews of Shushan stood behind Esther when she spoke up. We as a congregation and a Jewish community need to speak up together.

During Purim we give sh’lach manot, gifts. This Purim, the gift we can give is one of a kind word, an act of respect, a moment of treating even the stranger with kindness. One act at a time can change the world for the better. And when you perform these acts of kindness, share them here in the comments. Let’s inspire each other to bring back respect and compassion for all. pcr_0210_articleimg1_kindness

Look Where We’ve Come in Two Years


It’s hard to believe that two years ago our synagogue was on fire. At first, we all said it was just a kitchen fire. But months passed and layer after layer was removed before we could not smell the smoke or see the smoke damage any more. The fire cost us our building, down to the studs.

Here we are, two years and 11 million dollars later and look where we are! TBS outside at night

We are better than ever. And not just with the building.
We are better because we built relationships and partnerships. We could not be where we are today with out the volunteer committee of our Living Legacy and our dedicated Board of Directors. We could not be here today without the generosity of our congregation contributing to rebuilding. We could not be here today without a very dedicated staff who is not afraid to roll up their 23133496521_ca16e455df_zsleeves, pack, move and unpack (more than just once). We could not be here today if we did not believe in ourselves, Temple Beth Sholom, and know that we would rise from the ashes even better.
Temple Beth Sholom is not only a house of peace, it is a complete and whole house. While we have walls again, our soul is more complete because every person who enters these doors contribute to the foundation of our ruach, our spirit.


A Blessing for My Teacher

Dear Mr. Toler,

I just heard from Aileen, your beloved wife of  40 years, that you passed this morning. I have gratitude that she reached out to let me know but pain in my heart that you are gone. What hurts even more is that I feel like I missed so many moments to tell you how much you mean(t) to me.  And like I always tell everyone else, I didn’t listen to my own advice – don’t wait to tell someone how much they mean to you because some day it will be too late. I can only hope you knew deep down that you meant the world to me.

Mr toler closeYou were the first teacher to get me into my Jewish shell. Growing up in the mountains outside of Denver was not easy for a Jewish girl. My parents were committed to taking me and my sister to Temple Sinai every week for religious school, Shabbat and holiday services, and youth group. But being Jewish in a small mountain town is challenging when there are only 5 Jewish kids in school, 2 of whom admitted it. (At least that’s what I always said, and I don’t even think there were that many.)

I was in your 9th grade class, Accelerated History and English (the days before AP or Gate – remember, it’s a mountain town). It was time for group projects and my group chose World War II. I wanted to focus on the USO because of my love for theater and singing. But you challenged me and said, ‘Heidi, you should focus on the Holocaust.’ My response, ‘the Holo what?’ It was time I learned about one of the most difficult yet important times in modern Jewish history because as you explained it to me, I  had to become one of the teachers who would never let the world forget.

I worked hard that semester because you inspired me and encouraged me. You pushed me and never made the assignment easy. You knew what I was capable of even when I didn’t. You believed in me. And that one class project turned into a series of high school presentations that turned into a Rabbinic Thesis that turned into a life long passion of making sure the world never forgets the Holocaust. That was you Mr. Toler!

You were so important in my life that I had to have you not only at IMG_7665my wedding, but standing beside us as a chuppah holder. You laughed and danced that night and it was awesome to have my teacher and friend celebrate with Matt and me.

Time moved on and we went our separate ways. I was ordained and moved to southern California and you moved from Montrose, Colorado to Yuma, Arizona to be with your daughter and her husband.

Life moves forward but there are those moments that we are drawn back into memory. Mr. Toler….Frank….I cannot begin to tell you how much you were and are a part of my life. You were one of those who gave me a foundation from which to stand, a platform from which to speak, a lectern from which to teach. You helped me find my voice and be who I am and never let anyone tell me to be something else. You gave me the courage to speak out against injustice and showed me that the words are  written on my heart. You were and are the greatest teacher I had because you believed in me and you never gave up on me.

I will miss you in life but am grateful for the memories that surround me and strengthen me. I wish Aileen and your family love, comfort and strength. Zichrono livracha, may your memory always be a blessing.

With love,
Your student always,
Heidi Williams (Cohen)

Praying Together at the Kotel

Last time I was at the Kotel with my family, the kids were smaller and we were not allowed to approach the Kotel as a family. Today, this begins (and I say, “begins”) to change.

The Israeli government approved a plan for an enhanced egalitarian place of worship at the Kotel, the Western Wall, one of Judaism’s most holy sites. For decades men and women have been separated when praying at the Kotel. During IDF swearing in ceremonies, women soldiers were kept to the side and told not to sing, yet when entering battle, fought next to and with their male counterparts. The Kotel has been under the authority of the Orthodox with no flexibility or respect of other Jewish practice. Today, this changes.

“The government’s proposal – which is the result of a coordinated effort by the Reform and Conservative Movements, both in Israel and in North America, Women of the Wall, and the Jewish Federations of North America – calls for a significant revamping of the Western Wall area to create a more unified relationship between the three prayer areas (men’s, women’s, and egalitarian). The existing egalitarian space – near the area known as Robinson’s Arch – will be enhanced by the creation of an expanded platform with more access to the Western Wall, including from the ancient Herodian street. The site will be open through the main plaza by removing existing visual barriers and building a new, inviting entrance.” (URJ statement)

It will not go into affect at this moment, it’s going to take years of negotiations and plans to build this space, but this is an amazing first step.

I look forward to some day taking this picture again, not looking from afar with my family at the Kotel, but standing at the Kotel and praying and singing with full voices together with my husband, my daughter and my son.

A Prayer for Consolation in the Midst of Such Pain

(Letter I sent to local interfaith partners)

Dear Friends,

I want to extend my condolences to our community, especially, those from our local AME churches during this tragic time. I know that talking about Gun Violence  and policies can be quite controversial, however, right now, political differences aside. innocent lives were lost last night in a house of worship. This is the greatest fear of all of us – someone entering into our sacred space with the intention to hurt and kill.

May the families of those killed be comforted among all the mourners and in the arms of those who care for them. May the Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina be strengthened with the knowledge that there are so many praying for healing within their community. May all communities and all of us open our eyes, recognizing that hatred between races and faiths exist and it is our sacred duty to bring awareness and an end to such senseless acts as last night’s.

May God bless all those in pain and all those who seek to heal.
Rabbi Heidi Cohen

You can send a message to the families of Emanuel AME, Charleston, South Carolina.

A Response to the Israel Elections

Like any other election, no one is every going to be happy with the results. And the elections in Israel is challenging for us as American Jews because, while we want to have a stronger hand in what is happening in Israel, we are not registered to vote there. Yes, there is a way for our voices to be heard through the World Zionist Organization Elections happening now and coming to a conclusion April 30. Visit: to Register and then vote “ARZA”

Trying to unpack everything from the election is challenging, however, here is an important statement from the Reform Movement.

We pray for peace and stability for Israel and for all the world.

Reform Movement Leaders React to the Elections in Israel

Today we join supporters of democracy around the world in marveling at the vibrancy of Israeli society and the openness of her electoral process. We stand ready to work with the Prime Minister, the leaders of the new government, and those in the opposition as well, to ensure that Israel remains strong and secure, and to advance the values of democracy, peace, and pluralism to which we are unshakably committed.

While nothing can displace our celebration of democracy, we do have deep concerns about the result and about some campaign tactics. We are concerned because yesterday’s triumph for democracy in Israel may have come at the expense of the Jewish and democratic values we hold dear.  
In a video message to his supporters yesterday noting that “Arab voters are coming out in droves,” Prime Minister Netanyahu chose to use demographics as a wedge that threatens voter engagement. No public figure should lament fellow citizens exercising their right to vote freely, expressing themselves openly, and peacefully in accordance with the values of a democracy.
We are concerned about the approach a new government may take to working with Israel’s Palestinian neighbors, and, especially with the Prime Minister’s 11th hour revocation of his professed support for a two state solution. When the Prime Minister says that if he is elected there “will not be a Palestinian state”, we are left to wonder what type of future he envisions. A non-democratic future in which a Jewish minority rules over a Palestinian majority? Or a non-Jewish future in which democracy is preserved, but, inevitably, the Jewish character of the state will disappear?
We recognize what a challenging moment this is, but we also know that a negotiated two-state solution remains the optimal way to resolve the conflict, the burden of which we must not let fall on future generations. 
We will work with all those who share our commitment to an Israel in which the government does not dictate religious practices and offers a pluralistic and open approach to religious expression. We urge the Prime Minister, that when he forms a new governing coalition, it be one that reflects openness and pluralistic values for all of Israel’s citizens, a coalition that will not reflect discrimination of one religious denomination over another, a coalition that will reflect the democratic and pluralistic values expressly stated in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. 
Ironically, perhaps, one result of yesterday’s election is that our role as Diaspora Jews becomes even more important. There is significant work to be done in mending the bruised but still strong – and still critical – U.S./Israel partnership, and we are committed to finding creative and effective ways to be a bridge between the two governments. We encourage all of our members to exercise their democratic responsibility to influence and impact the Jewish State through voting in the elections for the World Zionist Congress – the Parliament of the Jewish People.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin casts his vote in March 17th elections.
(Image source: Israel Government Press Office).
As we continue to work to prevent a nuclear Iran, the Israeli government will need more than ever to focus on restored relations with the United States. The threat Iran poses to Israel, to American interests, and to global stability must remain at the top of our agenda.
We also recognize the work ahead of us in reaching out to those, especially younger Jews, who are more critical of Israeli politics, especially when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. They will be especially concerned about yesterday’s results, and we will work to educate them, to train them, and to support them as they develop what will surely be a distinctive and thoughtful pro-Israel sensibility.
We remain united in our commitment to Israel’s security, and to the values that can make her the “light unto nations” as we have prayed for generations.

American Conference of Cantors (ACC)
Cantor Mark Goldman, President
Rachel Roth, Managing Director
Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA)
Rabbi Josh Weinberg, President
Rabbi Bennett Miller, Chair
Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR)
Rabbi Denise Eiger, President
Rabbi Steve Fox, Chief Executive Officer
NFTY: The Reform Jewish Youth Movement
Debbie Rebinoqitz, President
Michol Zimmerman Burkman, Director
Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ)
Blair Marks, President
Rabbi Marla Feldman, Director
World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ) 
Rabbi Daniel Freelander, President
Mike Grabiner, Chair
Union for Reform Judaism (URJ)
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President
Steve Sacks, Chair of the Board of Trustees

More News

Everyone Can Be Brought to Torah

Every Jew has the right to be brought to Torah. Our children can be brought to Torah when they are 13. Some choose to wait till later in life. Some may not be given the opportunity when they are younger and choose to come to Torah later in life. But no matter when, every Jew has the right to be brought to Torah no matter one’s ability. It is all in one’s heart.IMG_2664

Moorea is one whose heart was so moved and whose parents wanted more than anything to bring their daughter to Torah. However, Moorea has semi-lobar holoprosencephaly, and no one ever thought it would be possible for her to become Bat Mitzvah. But when her parents, Evelyn and Andrew approached me asking if Moorea could become Bat Mitzvah and be brought to Torah, there was never any doubt, of course she can!

She does not have the ability to speak and her parents are two of the few who understand her. Her eyes sparkle when you sing to her and like any other teenager, she can get frustrated when something does not go her way. She needs 24/7 care and her parents are truly angels who love this beautiful gift God gave them unconditionally.

Family and friends gathered at Moorea’s home for a festive celebration. Many had no idea what to expect or even know what becoming Bat Mitzvah meant. But everyone knew that this was going to be a very significant moment for Moorea and her family.

Moorea spends much of her time confined to her wheel chair or bed. However, her parents invested in a “stander” that with the help of a sturdy structure and straps to keep her steady, Moorea can stand tall for about 30 minutes. After getting her dressed in a beautiful red dress for the occasion, setting the house for the celebration, and ensuring everyone was there, Moorea was secured into the stander and brought outside to the backyard. A sanctuary can be anywhere one seeks God.IMG_2675

Everyone ahh’d as Moorea came forward, we don’t get to see her standing very often. Her brother, Jules, also grinned from ear to ear and searched for the perfect vantage point to see what would happen next. Moorea’s grandmother presented Moorea with her tallit and wrapped it gently around her shoulders. Cantor Reinwald welcomed us all together in singing and together we entered a holy moment.

IMG_2699Moorea’s stander has a small table, just enough for me to balance the Torah so it could be right in front of her. Her parents held her arms and together they chanted the blessing on her behalf, Cantor chanted the portion and the entire honor of Aliyah l’Torah belonged to Moorea, we had just become her agents.

As Moorea stared down at the Torah you could see the look of IMG_2715amazement. She truly understood this moment. The look in her eyes was undeniable; she loved Torah. Her father spoke to her and she smiled widely feeling his loving blessing. Her mother spoke words of IMG_2720love and gratitude and a tear went down Moorea’s cheek. If anyone ever doubted if Moorea would understand the significance of this moment, it quickly dissipated as she soaked up each blessing and every moment.

We were all in the presence of God and witnessing one of God’s miracles, a young woman became a Bat Mitzvah and she blessed us.

Every Jew can be brought to Torah, Moorea taught us that, and I was blessed to be in that moment, a moment I will hold on to forever.IMG_2728

One Year Later…

003It’s hard to believe that a year has passed since our fire. So much has happened in this time and so much more is going to happen. Our building is starting to take shape and we are very excited to share updates with you throughout the process.  Before, there was not much to see, but as the walls start to be framed, as the ceiling and roof start to take shape, as design is implemented, we are able to see the future of where we will soon be gathered together.

Thank you to our entire TBS community for being so supportive, flexible, and loving during this year. You have moved around with us as we carried our Torah to various congregations and locations throughout this year. Our motto: “have Torah, will travel.” We are so grateful to the LDS community in Orange for embracing us and allowing us to be partners in their space. Our High Holy Day services were filled with all of our community and some who just wanted to be with us and support us. We are grateful to the Orange County Jewish community for opening their doors for Shabbat and B’nai Mitzvah celebrations.

But we have not been completely down at 2625 N. Tustin Ave. Our religious school and preschool programs continue to thrive under the direction of Jodi Kaufman and Pam Ranta. The rotunda school building buzzes with the laughter and voices of our children. And our rotunda building has been used in ways we never thought about until one year ago. We held our annual fundraiser in the rotunda, a wedding and celebration in the rotunda, Purim spiel and carnival, Shavuot and Selichot potluck and movie night. Who would have imagined that this outdoor space was so versatile and inspiring? Truly a hidden gem on our campus.

The journey continues to bring us back home with one of the best machete out there. And as with any great project, we have to be patient. There are so many layers involved. From the architectural design to the construction details to raising the funds necessary, each one adding a complex layer to the next. All this could not be done without the strong team of our Living Legacy Committee and TBS Board. These 028groups continue to work at a tireless pace to bring us back home again and I could not be more honored and proud of this amazing group of leaders. No one signs up to rebuild a building after a fire and move at the pace we have needed to move in this year. This is why I am so thankful to all of these leaders for their time, their patience and their persistence.

We are not only rebuilding our building, we also have this great opportunity to rebuild ourselves as a community. From the ashes comes opportunity and it is up to us to take that opportunity together.


Our congregational vision statement is that we are a “Jewish Center of Life, Learning and Connections.” With that in mind, as we ALL rebuild our congregation, not just the walls, what do these three things, Life, Learning, and Connections mean for you? Who do we want to be?  How do you see these three important aspects of our identity brought into what we do in the future. We can create great programs, but a program lasts only for a set time. How do we build Jewish life together?

Please take a moment and comment on this post and share your thoughts with me and our community. Remember, together we build our community and we make it what we want and what we need it to be. Jewish living is not only within the space we build, Jewish life is who we are every day and every moment.

Yes, it’s been a challenging year, but from the ashes come blessings. May we be blessed in all that we are and all that we are to become.