Beth El Congregation will welcome its new spiritual leader, Rabbi Nitzan Stein Kokin, on Monday, Aug. 5. Her arrival ends Beth El’s search for a new rabbi, which began last year.
A Rabbinical Search Committee was developed in March of last year after the previous rabbi, Rabbi Arthur Lavinsky, left the congregation. The committee’s original goal was to find an interim rabbi, but the initial efforts to find a temporary replacement were unsuccessful. In the summer of 2018 the committee shifted its focus from finding an interim rabbi to searching for a permanent replacement.
Stein Kokin is the congregation’s first female senior rabbi.
“The congregation has succeeded because we have committed to the mission of helping its members find joy and become better people through Torah and the traditions of the Jewish people,” Beth El wrote in a statement on its website. “The committee’s purpose has been to advance Beth El’s goal to foster individual and collective spiritual and intellectual growth in a warm atmosphere of friendship and community.”
Stein Kokin’s hire is only one of the exciting developments that Beth El Congregation has in store. In addition to the new rabbi, the congregation is forming a committee with the purpose of developing communication within the congregation and outreach to the community as a whole.
Stein Kokin is moving to the Valley from Los Angeles with her family.
Born in Germany, Stein Kokin was raised Protestant and converted to Judaism in 1999, and then immigrated to Jerusalem in her early 20s. There she graduated with a masters in Jewish Studies from The Hebrew University in 2002.
After continuing her education at Hebrew College in Newton, MA, Stein Kokin was ordained in June 2017. She is the first graduate of the Zacharias Frankel College, one of five rabbinical seminaries of the Conservative movement.
“I am excited to bring my Torah to you and for us to learn from each other, to get to know you and encounter your gifts and talents, so that we can continue to grow as a community and keep creating a space where we can dwell together as a holy community, celebrating and sharing our journey through life together,” Stein Kokin said in a statement to Beth El’s congregants.
Before Stein Kokin was hired, the congregation’s cantor, Jonathan Angress, performed duties as both cantor and rabbi. Angress — who has been with Beth El Congregation for three years — said that a lot of the congregants were asking him how he felt about Stein Kokin. He is excited for the new rabbi to come and believes that her diverse background will be good for Beth El.
“That background is extremely special to us, because as a conservative congregation we want to try and engage with everyone,” Angress said. “Not everyone is born Jewish, not everyone is a traditional observant Jew, and so to have a rabbi with this very diverse background, she’ll be able to connect with a wider range of people.”
Stein Kokin’s first goals as the new rabbi will be to learn more about the Phoenix Jewish community, its history and what sets it apart from other Jewish communities. She also will work to foster as many relationships with Beth El’s congregants and the Jewish community as possible.
“She and I believe in a newer concept of Judaism called relational Judaism,” Angress said. “That we engage people through our relationships with them versus expecting them to become a part of our congregation, because we expected them to.”
Angress shared a story about his first meeting with Stein Kokin. During the day of her interview with Beth El, Angress was sick and had difficulty performing his duties as a cantor for service. While the service was happening, Stein Kokin stepped in to assist him with the songs and eventually took over his singing responsibilities. She ended up leading services for the rest of the day and gave Angress’ voice a rest.
Despite the fact that she was only a candidate for the interview at the time, the interaction had a positive impact on Angress.
“I think she knew that I was struggling and came in to assist me,” Angress said. “During my time as a professional cantor a rabbi has never done anything like that for me, and I’ve never seen a rabbi do anything like that for a cantor in general. That established a trust between myself and her.” JN