Rabbi Cohen leaving Jackson’s Beth Israel, “J.C.” leaving Jacobs Camp

Rabbi Valerie Cohen, who has led Beth Israel in Jackson for 11 years, will become the senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel Sinai in Worcester, Mass., this summer.

Her husband, Jonathan Cohen, will also step down as director of the Reform movement’s Henry S. Jacobs Camp in Utica. “When the summer season ends here in August, I will join her” in Worcester.

In the announcement to the congregation tonight, Howard Katz, Beth Israel president, said “We are greatly indebted to Rabbi Cohen for her enormous contributions during her time serving our community. Her passion and skill in Jewish education as well as her interests and experiences in pastoral counseling and life cycle events has enriched us all.”

Last summer, Rabbi Cohen was named to the America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis list by the Forward.

Mark Fijman will lead Beth Israel’s search committee. Katz said there will be announcements for events honoring Rabbi Cohen before she leaves at the end of June.

News of their pending departure came just days after they celebrated the Bar Mitzvah of their son, Gabriel, at Beth Israel.

In her note to the congregation, Rabbi Cohen stated “You have allowed me to be a part of your lives, and in doing so you have enriched mine. I don’t know how I will be able to thank all those of you who have shared so much with me, but over the next four months I will give it my best effort.”

The Worcester congregation is a merger between Temples Emanuel and Sinai. Emanuel was formed in 1921 and grew to a peak of 1340 families in 1957. Sinai split off from Emanuel in 1958, with some members seeking a smaller, more intimate experience, capping membership at 500 families.

Demographic changes led to a decline in the community, and in 2009 Emanuel had 425 families. Last June, the two congregations agreed to combine.

The congregation currently has two locations, but is in discussions with a Conservative congregation to develop a community campus the two congregations would share. Alternately, plans are being explored to renovate one of the congregation’s buildings and consolidate operations there. The other facility has been sold to the Worcester State University Foundation, but the congregation can use it until 2015.

Notable events in the congregation’s history include a lecture by Martin Luther King in 1961, the funeral for Abbie Hoffman in 1989, and the 1967 funeral of Gregory Pincus, co-inventor of the birth control pill.

In 2003, Carlton Watson became congregational president, and is presumed to be the first black synagogue president in the nation.

Rabbi Cohen will succeed Rabbi Matthew Berger, who came to Temple Emanuel in 2009 and became the first rabbi of the combined congregation last summer.

Jonathan Cohen’s history with Jacobs Camp goes back to when he was 10 years old. A Tupelo native, he spent his first summer at the camp in 1977 and moved up the ranks to counselor to unit head.

In 2000, he became only the third director of Jacobs Camp since it opened in the summer of 1970, succeeding Macy Hart.

The URJ Camping System will partner with the Jacobs Camp Committee to search for a new director. Cohen said he wants to be sure the next director understands the importance of relationships with the families, alumni, supporters and communities.

“I don’t know if I will ever be able to truly express what this job, this region, and the people whom I have had the privilege of knowing during my time here, have meant to me – but, before I go, I will certainly try,” he added.

“This was a very difficult decision for both of us, for so many reasons, but we feel it’s the best one for our family,” Jonathan Cohen said.