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: https://www.reformjews4israel.org/ 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.

Sorrow in the Synagogue

Libi B’Mizrach – My Heart is In the East…

 As are many of our hearts right now. The cruel, cowardly and despicable actions of the terrorists who entered the synagogue in the Har Nof neighborhood in Jerusalem is something that stuns each of us. That someone could enter a house of prayer and brutally murder four Rabbis; Rabbi Aryeh Kupinsky, 40, Rabbi Avraham Shmuel Goldberg, and Rabbi Kalman Levine, 50, Rabbi Moshe Twersky and a Druze guard, Zidan Saif, protecting the synagogue, is unthinkable.

 Each of us consider the synagogue the most secure place. Yet yesterday, that peace was violated because of hate. And this hate must stop. What pains the heart, is that, while we hope to pursue peace, there are those who will stop at nothing to continue to spread terror and hate at any cost, even the cost of their own lives.

 Our hearts are in the east, they are in Jerusalem and with the people of Israel. Our prayers for peace will not cease because someone wields an axe. We pray that someday, swords may be turned into plowshares. We pray that all people can live in peace. Our hearts go out to those who are in mourning and we wish for a full recovery to those who are healing.

The prayers of the Har Nof community rose up again this morning from the synagogue but the walls wept with the memory of what took place. May we all be pursuers of peace and not be silent in the wake of hatred. Our synagogues should be places for peace, places where our prayers may freely come from our hearts and our lips. May no one ever silence them, and may the memories of those who were killed yesterday and in the weeks before never be forgotten.

A Modern Tisha B’Av

Tisha B'Av PhotoToday is Tisha B’Av, the 9th of Av, during which we commemorate the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. It is also said that on this date the Jews were expelled from England in 1290 CE, from Spain in 1492, and the Nazi’s began to liquidate the Warsaw Ghetto. There are many historical moments to recall on this tragic day and while many Reform Jews do not typically observe Tisha B’Av, we at TBS have created a ritual that allows us to remember and reflect.

Last night, Cantor Reinwald and Alan Shebroe led 20 individuals in a beautiful service of contemplation. Part of our ritual included reading Eicha, the book of Lamentations. The chant is haunting and the imagery of a destroyed and desolate Jerusalem is discomfiting. It was made even more powerful as we held our service in our own destroyed sanctuary at TBS. Just as it was moving to sit among the ruins in Jerusalem three years ago at Tisha B’Av, so too did last night move me and those who gathered together in an inexplicable way.

While we are ever grateful that the destruction of our sanctuary was not due to any act of another, to sit in the empty space brought forth great emotion. The space is empty and our voices echoed off the bare exposed wood. And while we feel loss there is also hope.

Just as the rabbis teach us that the weeks ahead become time of consolation and rebuilding, we too know that this is true for TBS. In one month we will have our groundbreaking and construction will begin to bring us back to our sanctuary. This will not happen quickly, it will be many months until we are fully back in our sanctuary, but we will be back. We are rebuilding.

The same is true for Jerusalem and Israel. These past weeks have been more than challenging for Israel at war in Gaza and in defense of herself to the rest of the world. But there is a sense of hope as all of the tunnels that would be used for terror have been destroyed. There is still the work to ensure Israel is secure and hopefully, this time of truce will hold so conversations can be shared. There is much consolation needed for all those who lost loved ones. And there is consolation and healing needed for all. This too will take time.

This year, Tisha B’Av has many dimensions for all of us to consider. From destruction to rebuilding we pray for hope and peace for all.

Hopes for a Shabbat Shalom

Since Wednesday I have been at Camp Hess Kramer and Gindling Hilltop Camp (Wilshire Boulevard Temple Camps) in Malibu. This is my 8th summer spending a week with not only our campers from TBS, but with campers from all over Southern California and Arizona. (I’ll share more thoughts later about why it’s so great to send our kids to Jewish camp, but for now, our thoughts are with Israel.)

I spent today with the older campers at CHK engaging in a discussion about the matzav, the situation, in Israel. All of them were aware of it before they came to camp but now, with a no screen rule (meaning, they are not allowed to have their phones or connection to the internet), the campers and staff are disconnected from the news so that we can be fully connected to our own camp community. While it’s good to be disconnected from our devices our thoughts and hearts continue to turn to the east with friends and family who are in Israel.

There is a collective concern in our community for the 50+ campers now in Israel and for the many shlichim, Israeli counselors, who have worked at CHK in years past. The Israeli staff with us this summer are concerned about their own family and friends, some of whom are on the front lines at this time. Everyone has a connection to Israel. And being people of action, they want to know what can they do? A question we all ask.

For this Shabbat, here are a few things for all of us to consider doing:

  1. Join in the efforts by the URJ to bring relief and support to those in Israel by visiting: http://urj.org/israel/ and stay informed locally through our own Jewish Federation of Orange County.
  2. Stay informed, but also know when to take a break. I’m just as addicted as the next person to Social Media, but sometimes the amount of information becomes overwhelming. This Shabbat, rather than spending time reading all the posts about Israel, TALK to your family and friends about what Israel means to you. Rather than connect via the internet, connect personally. I promise, the internet will be there after Shabbat is over.
  3. Add an extra Shabbat candle to bring light to a darkened time and include a prayer for peace. Either the one below or the words of your own heart.

I wish you all a Shabbat Shalom from camp and together, we all pray for peace for all people, in Israel, for those in Gaza and for all people throughout the world.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Heidi Cohen

As we gather this Shabbat…

As we gather this Shabbat, each in our own community, we will be united in our grief and pain over the violence this week in Israel. We weep, as our mother Rachel wept: A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping! Rachel is weeping for her children, refusing to be comforted for them, for they are no more. (Jeremiah 31:15)

To our prayers this Shabbat we add a prayer for Medinat Yisrael – the State of Israel – and for her people, our brothers and sisters.

From Psalm 122:6-9

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem; may those who love you prosper! Let there be peace in your homes, safety within your borders. For the sake of my people, my friends, I pray you find peace. For the sake of the house of the Eternal our God, I will seek your good.

Eternal God, grant blessing to the State of Israel, created to fulfill an age-old dream and to be a haven for the oppressed. Protect her people with Your grace, shelter them with Your peace, and grant them deliverance from the violence that surrounds them. May they live in harmony with one another and with their neighbors. May the bonds of faith and fate that unite the Jews of all lands be a source of strength to Israel and us all.

Libi B’Mizrach – My Heart is in the East

Libi b’mizrach – My heart is in the east.

It has been an intense nine days. It even started before that with the tragic killings of three Israeli young men and a Palestinian boy, all by extremists on both sides. We as Jews can’t say we don’t have extremists too, that would be ignorant.

For nine days rockets have been and are being directed into Israel from Gaza. Israel attempted peace by leaving Gaza in 2007 in hopes that the people within that area would begin to build a foundation for living independently and in peace with its neighbors. However, instead of building homes and a responsible government, Hamas has built a society that longs to bring terror to Israel, and in their words, “replace Israel in its entirety with a Muslim Brotherhood-ruled state.”

We turn on the news and we cannot avoid hearing about what is taking place in Israel and Gaza. Yet, having lived in Israel and knowing the people and the land, we must not always rely on what we see on all the major news channels. (Even John Stewart, a nice Jewish boy, frustrated me last night! – not saying that he is the most reliable news source, but there are enough people who use him for their daily dose of news rather than parody. But a cultural influence just the same.)

All of us need to have part of our hearts in the east. All of us need to feel some kind of connection with the Jewish people and the Jewish state who at this time hear the sounds of sirens going off many times an hour depending on where they are in the country. All of us need to be aware of what Israel means to us as Jews and the world. All of us need to be connected. We cannot let Israel be or feel alone. Our hearts should be in the east.

I’ve recently downloaded the app, Red Alert: Israel. It alerts me on my phone that a siren is going off in Israel because of an impending rocket. Yes, you can turn the sound off, however, there is something about having the sound on while in meetings, Torah study, and yes, even Shabbat services last week. It provides a slight feeling of being disturbed in the middle of an activity or even the middle of the night and know there is less than one minute to get into a shelter.

Read the news coming out of Israel. Read the Jerusalem Post, Ha’aretz or Times of Israel, all very good sources that will give you a good sense of what is really happening. Join the Jewish Federation Family Services of Orange County who have partnered with the Reform and Conservative movements, and make a donation that will help provide emergency aid to Israel’s citizens and soldiers.

This is not the time for us to just think, ‘Israel is on the other side of the world. What happens there doesn’t really affect me.’ Yes, it does! It affects all of us.

At this time we have a number of our youth touring throughout Israel on TIES and Birthright. They are all safe and having an amazing time. Their leaders are in constant connection with security and their schedule is always being adjusted depending on the moment. And as I’ve said to the parents of these youth, I would not hesitate to have my children there right now. I know they are safe and I know that while there is so much intense action happening, life continues in Israel. People are going to restaurants for dinner, friend’s houses for Shabbat and studying. Yes, life is interrupted by sirens that call them into shelters, but then, when the all clear is sounded (many thanks to Iron Dome), life continues.

Libi b’mizrach, my heart is in the east and I hope all of our hearts are there as we pray for peace for all people! May it come soon! Oseh shalom bimromav hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu!