by Jonathan “J.C.” Cohen
Director, URJ Henry S. Jacobs Camp
You might think it would be insufferable having to live with one of America’s most inspiring rabbis – the constant inspirational storytelling, the incessant drive to “move” others… oh, I could go on. And, since I also have to work with her professionally, you can just imagine what I, the regional camp director, would have to tolerate! (I hope all of this attention doesn’t go to her head! With summer fast approaching, I just don’t have the time to manage her ego!)
My wife Valerie was so surprised when she was called and told she may make the list; and, since it became official, she has been both humbled and flattered by the outpouring of enthusiasm and congratulations from her congregants, her (and my – I’m on her marketing team) many friends on Facebook, and beyond.
While I can only offer anecdotal examples of how I know she has inspired others through her work – and I don’t want to use this space to just brag on my wife (or do I?) – I can tell you how she has had an impact on Jacobs Camp, where I work.The truth is, Valerie doesn’t wake up every morning asking herself “Who can I inspire today? And how?” Rather, she gets up and does her work – the very challenging, and often rewarding work of being a congregational rabbi. And, for every time someone shares with her how they have been “inspired” by her work, there are SO many other times when she never knows if she’s even had an impact, made an impression, made a difference.
Beth Israel Congregation in Jackson, MS, sends a higher percentage of kids to URJ Camps than any other congregation in the country (when you adjust for the smallest of congregations that skew the statistics) – more than 80%! Sure, it has been that way for many years, long before she came to the congregation. And, sure it helps that Jacobs is just 45 minutes away – although I know there are congregations that are similarly close to other URJ Camps that don’t have those sorts of percentages. (In your face, um, other places!)
Valerie totally gets the benefit of Jewish camp to her congregation, and sells it hard – which results in so many camp families, and so many camp supporters from among her congregation’s membership. She also gets the benefit of NFTY, which is why the congregation’s youth groups are so strong. She gets the benefit of being affiliated with the Movement, which is why her congregation takes advantage of so many of the URJ’s programs and services. And she gets what it means to be actively involved in congregational life, which means encouraging – correction: inspiring – her congregants, both individually and collectively, to be an active part of the life of their congregation, the Jewish people, and the community at large.
What I find that she most inspires is an interest to do more than what we do, and perhaps, as a result, to be more than who we are right now. It’s what we want, and get, from all of our community’s leaders, which is just awesome.
It’s very nice that my wife made the list. I’m proud, our family is proud, her congregation is proud, and so many who know her are proud as well. Congratulations to the other rabbis who made the list as well. And, congratulations to all of us who didn’t make a published list this week. Maybe next week! (If the Forward puts out a list of America’s Most Inspirational Rabbinic Spouses, I’ll expect prominent placement!)
When we celebrate Passover next week, we will retell the story of an inspirational leader who just wanted to do the right thing, and the people who were inspired, who just wanted to make for themselves, their children, and future generations – all of us included – a better life. Whether we make a list or not, we all have it in us to positively inspire others. All we have to do is go for it. Chag Sameyach.