by Maxine Fischbein
(AJNews) – Beth Tzedec’s new education director is not getting much sleep. The father of three young sons, one of whom was born very recently, Ari Cohen’s life – while full of blessing – has been hectic.
But when the native Calgarian talks about his work at Beth Tzedec, he exudes boundless energy and excitement as he provides a tour of the wonderland he will soon be creating on the Synagogue’s lower level with the help of lots of little hands.
Devoted to integrating and vivifying Jewish education as a learner-focused experience, Cohen is mapping the spaces in which young congregants attending High Holidays services and Shul School will re-create the creation story and journey through Torah stories.
In the background are the bones of spectacular sukkot that were envisioned, designed and built by architecture students at the University of Calgary in contests commissioned by Beth Tzedec between 2012 and 2016.
Each year, the winning sukkah was erected adjacent to the Synagogue’s halakhic sukkah. In 2017 all five sukkot were once again celebrated as the highly-successful project reached its conclusion.
The sukkot were displayed elsewhere – most notably at Calgary’s St. Mary’s University – and then stored. Now, it is Cohen’s intention to repurpose them, sparking the imaginations of Beth Tzedec’s youngest congregants.
Cohen, who assumed his role on May 2, was born and raised in Calgary. He attended The Calgary Jewish Academy through Grade 6, enjoying summers at Camp Hatikvah, BB Camp in Lake of the Woods and Camp BB (now known as Camp BB Riback) at Pine Lake.
The son of Dr. Jim Cohen and the late Marley Rynd, Ari grew up in the Shaarey Tzedec and Beth Tzedec Congregations. He was called to the BTZ bimah as Bar Mitzvah and he and his wife, Stephanie, were wed at the Synagogue.
Armed with a Bachelor of Arts from McGill University and a Master of Arts in Workplace and Adult Learning from the University of Calgary, Cohen looks forward to completing his Ph.D. in adult learning at the U of C.
A proponent of lifelong learning, Cohen is in the midst of developing curricula for Shul School, the B’nai Mitzvah Program and Adult Education at Beth Tzedec. He is also gearing up to participate in the ritual life of the Synagogue by leading religious services from time to time and assisting Rabbi Cantor Russell Jayne in training B’nai Mitzvah students.
“We feel fortunate to welcome Ari to the Beth Tzedec team,” said Congregational President Lorne Pearl when the Synagogue announced Cohen’s appointment. “He is passionate about Jewish education and philosophy.”
“Ari will help us achieve our ambitious educational goals, serving every segment of the congregation and expanding on the highly successful range of offerings implemented by Engagement Director Jonah Potasznik,” – Rabbi Russell Jayne
“Ari will help us achieve our ambitious educational goals, serving every segment of the congregation and expanding on the highly successful range of offerings implemented by Engagement Director Jonah Potasznik,” said Beth Tzedec spiritual leader Rabbi Cantor Russell Jayne.
Potasznik, who is currently on paternity leave, will return to Calgary together with his wife, Angy Cohen, and their recently-born son in November.
Among his many initiatives, Potasznik is the architect of a new initiative – BTZ Pods.
The goal is to unite groups of eight to 10 families in Beth Tzedec “neighbourhoods” that are microcosms of the areas in which they live. The Synagogue will provide some technical, financial and social resources to support the pods, which will be launched with one or two trial pods this year.
“In describing BTZ Pods to folks, I often joke that it is an initiative that can take us into the 18th century, not the 21st! It’s a tongue-in-cheek way to say that this initiative is meant to bring back what we have lost in the modern world: strong community-based relationships,” says Potasznik.
“This initiative is meant to bring back what we have lost in the modern world: strong community-based relationships.” – Jonah Potasznik.
Pod members may choose to communicate via WhatsApp, organize shared celebrations or events, provide one another with recommendations, or lend a hand with food or errands when others in the group experience loss or illness. The possibilities are endless; it will be up to each group to develop its goals based on common geography and shared interests.
“In addition to the daily, weekly, and monthly events we hold at the synagogue, the relationships built through small, day-to-day interactions outside of our building allow congregants to receive that double-sided feeling of support and responsibility that so defines what it means to be part of a community,” Potasznik adds.
Among his other duties, Ari Cohen is collaborating with Potasznik and providing coverage during his leave. Like Potasznik, Cohen has a passion for ensuring that Beth Tzedec moves its mission beyond synagogue doors.
“I’m looking forward to making the Shul and Judaism part of the answer to issues that Beth Tzedec congregants and members of the Jewish community face in life and in school so we can be the best versions of ourselves.” – Ari Cohen
“I’m looking forward to making the Shul and Judaism part of the answer to issues that Beth Tzedec congregants and members of the Jewish community face in life and in school so we can be the best versions of ourselves,” says Cohen.
Toward that end, Cohen has been working on Shul School 2.0, a program that takes kids “beyond the four walls of the conventional Shul School classroom.” Thus, he intends to redeploy the previously mentioned sukkot as activity centres for art, puppetry and interactive storytelling focused on bible stories.
“The entire curriculum is devoted to helping each student explore how they “fit into the Jewish story,” says Cohen who plans to expose kids to the breadth of Jewish denominational experience. This will be accomplished through play-based learning emphasizing Jewish history, holidays and traditions, Hebrew, and blessings and prayers.
During the three-year program, Shul School students will drill down on what it means to be Jewish. That will include “a focused look at the natural fit of the Jewish holidays,” a lens through which students develop an understanding of Jewish indigeneity in Israel and their relationship to the land and its people. They will explore “how to craft a Jewish life” through “experiential insights into Jewish values.”
Cohen is devoted to attracting kids who do not attend Jewish day schools as well as those who do, expanding the social networks of kids and young families. Following the first hour-and-a-half of the Sunday Shul School program, Beth Tzedec will open its doors to young congregants and members of the community at large for Sunday Arts and Sports Ulpans. The program puts arts and sports at the centre of fun and immersive Jewish experiences.
As much as possible, the play-based program will integrate the use of Hebrew, emphasizing a living language in which Jewish youth can take pride while developing lifelong skills, says Cohen, who is currently recruiting instructors – some of them Israeli – with experience in coaching or the arts.
The arts program will be participant-driven, with kids choosing the subject matter that is meaningful to them and then creating exhibitions or performances, “incorporating Hebrew wherever it is most meaningful and impactful to do so,” Cohen says.
Though soccer based, the sports program will feature other games including gaga – an Israeli favourite. Hebrew words will be incorporated in drills prior to the games, and students will be encouraged to use those words and phrases during games.
Cohen wants to enrich the adult experience at Beth Tzedec too. For starters, throughout the Jewish month of Elul, congregants and community members are invited to participate in an early morning yoga program that aims to promote the development of physical and spiritual flexibility and strength.
“The emphasis is self-care,” says Cohen, adding that the words of our sage Hillel inspired the program’s title: If I am not for me then who will be – Yoga.
The early-morning program (details TBA) will run Monday through Friday between August 29 and September 23. While it is intended for adults, children are welcome. There is no charge, but donations will be gratefully accepted.
Rabbi Jayne has chosen the Psalm for the Season of Repentance – Psalm 27 – as the focus for guided meditations that will be an important spiritual element of the program.
“In the days leading up to the High Holidays, introspection and self-improvement are top of mind,” Cohen says. “Focusing on sustainable self-care can lead to a sweeter New Year.”
Like Cohen, the Beth Tzedec leadership team has been reimagining many aspects of Synagogue life. Toward that end, some Shul staff members have been redeployed and others recently hired.
Rabbi Jayne, who previously served for eight years as Cantor, earned his Smicha (Rabbinical ordination) from the Pluralistic Rabbinical Seminary in January 2022 and recently signed a new five-year contract as Congregational Rabbi.
He is thrilled to once again share the bimah with a colleague following the recent appointment of Rabbi Ilana Krygier Lapides as part-time Assistant Rabbi. Having earned her Smicha from the Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute, she is the first woman to serve as clergy in the history of the congregation and is believed to be the first born and bred Calgarian to serve in a permanent position as clergy in a local Synagogue.
Rabbi Ilana’s previous teaching role in the Beth Tzedec B’nai Mitzvah program will be expanded as she becomes involved in one-on-one lessons with students during the six months prior to their becoming Bar or Bat Mitzvah.
She will work closely with Ari Cohen in the delivery of education programs and will assist Rabbi Russell Jayne with pastoral, lifecycle and bimah duties. Beth Tzedec members can look forward to hearing Rabbi Ilana leading family services during the High Holidays and delivering the sermon in the main service on the second day of Rosh Hashanah.
“We will tag team on other things, working together as rabbinical colleagues, studying together and supporting one another,” said Rabbi Jayne who added that Rabbi Ilana will play an ongoing role on other Shul fronts such as teaching Keruv (conversion) classes and delivering Divrei Torah.
Rabbi Ilana continues to serve as Community Chaplain on an as-needed basis, providing pastoral care for those transitioning in hospital or hospice and tending to community members struggling with grief. A woman with many kippot, she will also continue her own private rabbinical practice, tending to those individuals and families “. . . who don’t feel they fit under the umbrella of affiliated Judaism,” on a case by case basis.
“Primarily, I am an ambassador of Beth Tzedec,” she told AJNews, adding that it is a role she is very pleased to assume.
“Beth Tzedec has changed over the past years. The tent is much wider than most people think it is. It is a conservative Synagogue but this is not your Bubbie’s Beth Tzedec. There is new stuff going on.” – Rabbi Ilana Krygier-Lapides
“Beth Tzedec has changed over the past years. The tent is much wider than most people think it is. It is a conservative Synagogue but this is not your Bubbie’s Beth Tzedec. There is new stuff going on,” Rabbi Ilana said.
“Beth Tzedec is taking the needs of the next generation seriously, and we understand what the congregation must do to remain relevant. Women’s voices must be, and are, an equal part of the conversation,” said Rabbi Jayne.
Women have always served on the front lines of the administrative and operations teams at Beth Tzedec, where there have been recent and notable changes.
Jennifer Girvitz, who has served the congregation in various capacities over the past decade, has been named Executive Assistant to Rabbi Jayne. She will continue to coordinate Synagogue and lifecycle events.
Jennifer Preece, a graduate of the 2022 Keruv class, has joined the front-line administrative team.
David Inhaber, who previously served Beth Tzedec as treasurer, two-term president and interim CEO was recently appointed CEO after an extensive search that yielded an impressive short list of candidates, says Congregational President Lorne Pearl.
“There has been a lot of action at Beth Tzedec,” said Inhaber. “I am most excited about all the new things our clergy, professional staff and key volunteers are working on to get members of the Synagogue and community re-engaged in person at Beth Tzedec after close to three years of COVID.”
Amen to that!
To share your ideas or become involved in youth or adult education initiatives at Beth Tzedec, contact Ari at email@example.com or 403-255-8688.
Register for Shul School or Sunday Arts and Sports Ulpans at bethtzedec.ca. To join a BTZ Pod, go to cutt.ly/btzpods. For yoga information and registration, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 403-255-8688.
Maxine Fischbein is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter