the ruminative rabbi

Martin Cohen is my rabbi. I did not know I needed a rabbi until I met Martin. Now I advise all of my colleagues to find a rabbi - and a good one - if at all possible.

It happened this way. I was a minister at South Arm United Church in Richmond, a suburb of Vancouver. It was around 1990. One Sunday when I arrived for worship a member of the congregation confronted me with a copy of that morning's Vancouver Province newspaper. On the front page was a photograph of the Beth Tikvah Synagogue in Richmond showing a spray-painted swastika and anti-semitic slogans. She looked at me and said: "So what are you going to do about it?". We included prayers for the synagogue in worship that day. On the way home I remembered the concerns that Lloyd Gaston, my professor of New Testament, had instilled in his students regarding the interpretation of the New Testament in light of the Holocaust. The roots of the Holocaust included an anti-semitic reading of the Christian gospel. Ministers of that gospel must now be responsible to revisit these texts and to meet our Jewish neighbours in order to re-construct a faithful relationship. I realised that the question my parishioner had asked me was, in fact, a word from God. What was I going to do about it?

The next day I typed (yes, on a typewriter) and mailed (yes, in the post office box not by email) a letter to the synagogue and its rabbi expressing our concern for what had happened to them and our support in whatever way we could be of assistance. Three days later my phone rang. It was Martin Cohen. He invited me to come and to meet him for coffee. When I arrived at the synagogue early the next week I found the entrance hallway covered in letters that had flooded in to the synagogue from all over the province expressing concern and offering support. Martin told me that when the synagogue had been painted with hateful graffiti it raised up old fears that, perhaps, he and his fellow Jews really were not welcome here. Maybe, beneath a veneer of tolerance, Canadians did not welcome them. As he pointed to the letters decorating the hallway he remarked that this event had actually revealed a huge wellspring of love and care that had surprised and delighted the congregation. Then we went for coffee.

That was two decades ago. Since then I have moved on to ministry at University Hill Congregation. Martin has moved first to Los Angeles and then to Long Island where he is currently the rabbi at the Shelter Rock Jewish Center. In the intervening years he has written and published detective novels, introductions to Jewish life, commentaries and more. We twice team-taught courses. One of those courses was a week long study of Jewish and Christian scripture called "Reading in Each Other's Light" at the Vancouver School of Theology. The other was a memorable four days at a retreat center in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina where we led a group of rabbis and ministers in reading the letters of Paul to see if the New Testament is inherently anti-semitic. That was an amazing experience for me. It was especially powerful to be welcomed into Martin's circle of close friends who gathered there.

One of the unexpected gifts of being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness is that old friendships are rekindled. Martin and I had lost contact over the last few years. Living on either side of the continent, fathering lively families and leading busy congregations seemed to leave little time to maintain the friendship. But now it seems important to reconnect. I found Martin's The Ruminative Rabbi blog online and recognized his intelligence, humour and wit immediately. We've begun corresponding by email again. I am hoping that it is only a matter of time before we have a chance to sit down over a meal together. In the meantime, it is good to be back in touch with my rabbi. It turns out he has known many congregants with multiple myeloma and amyloidosis so, along with our conversations about our families, congregations and lives in general, he is my rabbi at the bedside, too.

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