Rabbi Julie Kozlow

Trudy Steinhauer, president of Prescott’s Temple B’rith Shalom, stands with Rabbi Julie Kozlow, right, in front of the synagogue.

Rabbi Julie Kozlow hopes this year’s Zoom seder on March 27 will be more palatable for Temple B’rith Shalom’s congregation than the first Passover during COVID. At least everyone is much more familiar with technology.

Last year was “a bit technologically traumatic,” Kozlow said, joking that Zoom is now her “best friend.” And due to vaccinations and good outdoor weather, this Passover will feature one in-person activity. On March 31, the synagogue will host a musical service outdoors, which will be followed by a group hike.

But more consequentially, congregants have become familiar with Kozlow.

She started in Prescott only four months before COVID-19 struck and hardly had the opportunity to hold many in-person services before they ceased altogether. The pandemic arrived just as she was getting in the swing of things, which pretty much eclipsed the possibility of a normal tenure.

“I was so devastated,” she said. “I didn’t know if I would be able to be what my congregation needed.”

But the new rabbi persisted. She was determined not to let the pandemic — or any challenge — change the goals she had when she moved to Prescott from Wilmington, North Carolina.

Kozlow was drawn to Prescott, in part, because she suspected in a smaller city she would find congregants with more “spiritual hunger to live a better and more meaningful life.” Originally from Los Angeles, she felt a smaller town and synagogue would allow her to be closer to people. “There’s an intimacy that I think people need that you can get at a small synagogue.”

Even with social distancing requirements in place, she worked to make that idea a reality. Instead of meeting at the synagogue, she chatted with people in their backyards and sitting on patios. She made a point of not letting herself get isolated just because she couldn’t meet many people in person. “I still show up for those who need to see their rabbi,” she said.

Kozlow quipped that the trials of being new in town during one year of COVID made it seem like 10, but her work seems to have paid off. She does feel the deep connection with her congregation that she sought. People are excited that she’s “taken the reins” and invited them “to hop on board,” she said.

Even while the pandemic raged, the synagogue’s membership has slowly crept up, and its Hebrew school, which once had four occasional students, has blossomed to 15 regulars.

“She has done a fabulous job in terms of building her congregation, which is what the congregants wanted her to do when she came here,” said Christine Resnick, executive director of Greater Prescott’s Jewish Community Foundation.

Kozlow has reached out to people who were unaffiliated before, Resnick said. “They, in turn, have reached out to other families and that’s why her school is growing.” COVID has caused people to reconsider how they spend their time, and Kozlow has been able to give them “a sense of spirituality and connection,” contributing to B’rith Shalom’s growth, Resnick said.

“She has united us,” congregant Shara Beck said. Before Kozlow arrived, there was turnover, and Beck said, “we were discombobulated.”

Greg Raskin, whose parents were some of the original founders of B’rith Shalom, appreciates how proactive Kozlow has been even in the face of COVID. “Jewish families have moved up here, and they’re interested in getting their kids involved, and Julie has really done a good job with that,” he said.

Kozlow said it’s all about being “connected to the pulse of the congregation."

Still, it hasn’t been perfect. One hiccup followed the riot in the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Kozlow suddenly found herself breaking her own rule against politics inside the synagogue.

Upon her arrival in Prescott she was warned there were fears of a split in the congregation due to political disagreements. She remembered thinking, “that is just a crazy thing.” All year, whenever someone drifted towards politics in the chat or Q&A sessions of her Zoom programs, Kozlow was quick to quash it — always conscious about where it could lead.

But during the Shabbat service that followed the events of Jan. 6, Kozlow spoke openly about what happened and castigated the rioters. At times like this “there are more important things than keeping quiet,” she said.

Congregant Rob Gordon thought Kozlow’s sermon was beautiful. “What she wrote was healing, and she spoke from the heart.”

But not everyone was pleased.

Her decision drew some ire and complaints from a congregation that is fairly divided between Democrats and Republicans. Some wrote to Trudy Steinhauer, the synagogue’s president and a conservative Republican, that their liberal rabbi had overstepped. But if they were hoping for a sympathetic ear from the president whose politics aligned with their own, they were likely disappointed.

“Everybody knows I’m a Republican and everyone knows that she is not, and that’s OK,” Steinhauer said.

“This synagogue is all that’s important, and our membership has got to make sure this synagogue is the goal,” she said. “That’s just the key.”

Kozlow owes much of her success to the solid relationship she has with Steinhauer, she said. “Without Trudy I could not have done it,” Kozlow said. “She’s as focused on the health and welfare of the congregation as I am.”

Kozlow hopes their relationship is a model on how to debate issues respectfully.

She’s since resumed her mantra of no politics in the synagogue, but said there might be future exceptions. “I assume it was easier when we didn’t talk about anything. Now we’re going to have to talk. It’s a new chapter.”

But her focus is on the congregation in front of her which, she said, is “heading in the right direction.” There are no “fair-weather or shallow relationships;" people need each other and need their faith, Kozlow said. 

“I’m happy to quietly do great work for God,” she said. “It doesn’t shine in glitter, but there’s something really beautiful happening here.” JN