A rabbi’s love of tech — and quiet heroes

A rabbi’s love of tech — and quiet heroes

Questions for Rabbi Daniel Cohen

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

It will surprise few of his congregants to learn that Rabbi Daniel Cohen is less likely to leave his iPhone at home than his wallet, and would likely have become a high-tech writer or engineer if he hadn’t ended up in rabbinical school. (He writes “Chai Tech,” an occasional column for NJJN.)

As this tech-savvy leader of Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel approaches his 20th anniversary at the synagogue, the congregation will mark the milestone with two events. On Friday, June 7, a celebratory oneg Shabbat will follow a family service featuring Dr. Carol Meyers, the Mary Grace Wilson Professor of Religion at Duke University. She was one of Cohen’s professors at Duke, where he earned a BA in anthropology and religion. She will discuss the relevance of archaeology in today’s political world. On Saturday, June 15, over cocktails and dessert, Rabbi David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute for Religion — where Cohen received his rabbinic ordination — will address the significance of the progressive movement.

Cohen agreed to answer some questions about his interest in technology, his love for New Jersey, and some highlights of his rabbinate. But first, a little-know fun fact: Danny Cohen, as he was known in his youth, was voted “least likely to return to temple” by his peers at Temple Sinai in Summit, where he grew up, during his confirmation year.

NJJN: What was your most interesting high-tech rabbinic moment?

Rabbi Cohen: I was on the floor of a Las Vegas tech show while on sabbatical, and members of the congregation were in Israel. One girl, Emma, was going to become a bat mitzva on the trip. First, I received a photo of Emma as the ceremony was about to start. A few minutes later they sent me another picture. It was Emma standing, I believe, at the southern steps of the Temple Mount holding a BlackBerry. It seems the family left the hotel and Emma forgot [the hard copy of] her d’var Torah. Fortunately her mom had it on her BlackBerry because she had e-mailed it to someone. She pulled out the phone, handed it to Emma, and Emma read it from the phone.

NJJN: What’s your favorite gadget?

Cohen: The iPad mini.

NJJN: How has technology changed TSTI?

Cohen: When I got here, the answering machine was really old — it was tape-driven! Now we’re very networked. The whole staff except for one person has an iPhone. We try to do things paperless. And kids in the religious school Skype with kids in Nahariya, Israel, using an iPad and a flat-panel TV.

NJJN: What was the most dramatic change you made when you arrived?

Cohen: The black robes were gone the minute I became senior rabbi. I consciously want to be approachable.

NJJN: What’s the funniest thing that has happened to you on the bima?

Cohen: I was on the bima with Rabbi Ellie Miller [TSTI associate rabbi], singing with the kids at a tot Shabbat. One child went home and said, “I sang on the bima with God and his wife!”

NJJN: What was your weirdest rabbinical moment?

Cohen: A few years ago we presented a video on a large flat-screen TV to b’nei mitzva families that included…my bar mitzva on a temple trip at Masada. It turned out that one of the parents in the room had been on the same tour, and the woman who had organized the trip is now a member of my congregation!

NJJN: Did you always want to be a rabbi?

Cohen: No. I originally wanted to be a marine biologist, or maybe an engineer. But I decided to take a class in my second year of college with a great teacher that looked interesting — “Women in the Bible.” And I was hooked.

NJJN: You grew up in Berkeley Heights and your family belonged to Temple Sinai in Summit. What’s the oddest part about living so close to where you grew up?

Cohen: When I walk in for services, especially for a bar or bat mitzva and someone says, “Hi Danny,” I know they’re from my childhood. No one calls me Danny anymore.

NJJN: What do you love most about New Jersey?

Cohen: It’s home.

NJJN: What do you hate most about New Jersey?

Cohen: The cold. It really bugs me, more and more as I get older.

NJJN: You have a quintessentially Jewish name. Ever wish it was different?

Cohen: Yes. I thought I might take on my middle name. But Mark Cohen wasn’t much better than Dan. But here’s a true story: I did my junior year of college at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. When they were going through the roster of students — I think there were about 800 of us and probably 794 were Jewish — when they got to my name, the guy reading said, “Oh, here’s a Jewish name.” It’s silly but true!

NJJN: Who inspires you?

Cohen: People who do things that make a difference but aren’t looking for recognition — I like quiet heroes.

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