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New rabbi, new year: Jewish High Holy Days begin Sunday

For Franklin County's Jewish community, like those around the world, it's a new year, marked by the observance of Rosh Hashana beginning Sunday at sunset. And Temple Israel in Greenfield also has a new rabbi -- Franklin County's first woman in that role.

Andrea Cohen-Kiener, who was named rabbi of the Greenfield synagogue last month, has been the spiritual leader of a Jewish Renewal community in Central Connecticut, the leader of an interfaith initiative in environmental theology and practice, a delegation leader for the Compassionate Listening Project to foster a deep Israeli-Palestinian dialogue and the author of four books, including "Claiming Earth as Common Ground: The Environmental Crisis Through the Lens of Faith."

A Minneapolis native who was ordained at 46 by The Alliance of Jewish Renewal, Cohen-Kiener grew up at a time when there were no women rabbis, and says she became interested in Judaism and feminism at the same time.

"I wanted to be a leader, and I wanted to be able to do it, Jewishly," says Cohen-Kiener, who grew up in a religiously Conservative home. "What that looked like is being a rabbi."

She has saved the rejection letter she received from the Conservative Jewish movement after she had first applied to become a rabbi.

"Why don't you apply for a nice PhD degree in education?" she paraphrases, with a laugh.

Cohen-Kiener did earn bachelor's degrees in secondary education and Hebrew literature from the University of Minnesota.

Yet she felt "a terrible, terrible conflict" between the pulls she felt for orthodoxy and feminism, "like if I led the services, it would be ripping the fabric of the tradition, so why don't I go and be a mother, be an influence, be a guide, be a teacher? They said that's very important work, and they're right. ... They really do honor women in the home. If I speak truth to power, that's the Judaism I carry with me, and it's open to men and women."

But when she learned about the Jewish Renewal movement -- from which she first was ordained as a pastoral counselor -- "It was like homecoming for me. It helped me to be deeply Jewish but also deeply modern. It gave me a way of thinking that had integrity, (so) I' m not picking and choosing; I'm using the orthodoxy, but I'm open to other truths and other value systems."

Temple Israel, an unaffiliated congregation with a diverse membership of about 80 families and individuals, formerly affiliated with the Conservative movement, but now using Conservative, Jewish Renewal and Reconstructionist prayer books, is the spiritual Jewish center of Franklin County. It's also the first real congregation where Cohen-Kiener has served as rabbi, since the Connecticut Renewal community is more of an informal chavurah, or fellowship.

The Jewish Renewal movement, led by founding Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi until his death last year, has reintroduced the Hasidic traditions together with mysticism, meditation and gender equality.

"We have the psychological and spiritual depth and cosmology of Hasidism and esoteric Judaism, or really ... a deep traditional Judaism," explains Cohen-Kiener.

"We allow other values and other truths: feminism, our connection to all the people of the world, and a connection to the Earth as the place to act out our covenant. That's a very important Torah for our time. That's the Torah that we need to talk about. That's the Torah I hope to develop here."

Three years ago, after her children had grown, Cohen-Kiener decided she needed to live on a farm and learn "land craft (in) a kind of self-funded sabbatical" at the Rochester Folk Art Guild in western New York state.

She comes to Greenfield as rabbi, "with people who want to be close to the land, who want to live in a technologically resilient community, who want to consume within a modest range where we're not trying to impress each other here with the new clothes we got, where we're going to share ... It's important to me to live like that, and we can do more together if I'm living in a place where other people want to do that. That's why I'm excited about this job. It's a good match."

Specifically, the author of a teenage curriculum on "self-awareness and communication," sees it as a good match because this region has "sort of an agrarian, collaborative" culture, where there's already enthusiasm about starting off the new Jewish year initiating an interfaith dialogue on sustainable living practices, building on the agrarian Hebrew practice of letting farmland rest every seventh year.

It's a good match, too, Cohen-Kiener says, because one of her strengths is in group process work to help people work through conflicts.

"That's a great skill to bring to any congregation, but especially to a group of people that, by the nature of this institution as the only synagogue in Franklin County, it's more diverse than most, in so many ways. I believe that will be really helpful, and I'll help bring their energy to congregational life in the way they want to, in a way that feels good to them. I'm pretty good at framing things in a way that, even if people disagree, they can row toward a common purpose."

That's a message that resonates especially at the start of the Jewish year, which begins the High Holy Days when Jews reflect on how they've lived over the past year and how they can begin anew.

"The English translations are all about God, the king, who's judging us, and all the terrible things I've done wrong," she says. "Any kind of prayer, at any time of the day or year, is about getting closer to yourself, so it's a time to quiet the habitual mind, to be part of community, to think about lofty ideas and, to the best of our ability, to integrate them sincerely, into ourselves. Sincerity is very big, like the Drano that allows these higher spirits to get into us."

Instead of a shaming, rote, "time to say, 'Maybe I did gossip, maybe I didn't murder, but maybe I really embarrassed someone, maybe I shortened their life through stress ... Maybe somebody else in the community did these things, and I pray that they have this moment as love and self acceptance, I pray the best for them, for their remorse to be healing.'"

And so even though she may be new to Franklin County, Cohen-Kiener feels at home here, and in herself, and this most special time in the Hebrew calendar -- a time in Judaism that's all about returning to our best selves.

"That's the core," she says. "What does it mean to repair the process of 'teshuva,' of coming back to our true nature. It's not far away. There's no place like home. It's close. If I'm not in that state that we want to be in in prayer, if I'm far from myself, it makes me want to shed tears, of both remorse and gladness ... I'm home, I've always been here. This is me, this is mine; when I'm in that state. It's really wonderful."

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