The job to be done

In the past two months I have been taking part in the Rabbis Without Borders fellowship. It’s a program of the National Center for Jewish Learning and Leadership, otherwise known as CLAL. Despite the name, the group does not
go to far-flung places to offer rabbinic care! Instead, the assumption of the program is that we can use Judaism to help people flourish. The assumption is that Judaism has something unique to offer even beyond the boundaries of the Jewish community. 20 Reportajes are chosen each year to be on the program. The Rabbis come from all walks of life, from all Jewish denominations, and work in different settings, not just in synagogues.

On the most recent retreat we learned a particular idea which I wanted to share with you, which I mentioned at High Holy Days. It’s the concept of the job to be done. It comes
from the business world. There’s a guy called Clayton Christensen who works at the Harvard Business School and McDonald’s asked him to try and sell more of their milkshakes. He stood in the parking lot of McDonald’s for 18 hours and watched all the customers who bought milkshakes carefully.

And it turned out that about half of the milkshakes were sold before 8:30 in the morning. It was the only thing they bought, they were always alone, and they always got in the car and drove off with it. So the next morning he asked a bunch of them why they bought
milkshakes and after long conversations he worked out that they all had the same job to do. That is, they had a long and boring drive to work and they just needed something to have while they were driving to stay engaged with life and not fall asleep. One hand had to be on the wheel, but geez, somebody gave me another hand, and there’s nothing in it. And I just needed something to do while I’m driving. In other words, they hired the milkshake to do the job of keeping them company and occupied on their drive to work. So Christensen helped McDonald’s work out that as long as the milkshake was the correct thickness and lasted the whole journey, they would sell more milkshakes, and he was right!

When we hire a contractor on our house we are hiring them to do the job of fixing or building our house. When we hire a gardener we are hiring them to do the job of landscaping or maintaining our garden. So what are we hiring religion to do? Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, suggests the following five things are the things we need to flourish as human beings and Rabbi Irwin Kula suggests the same five things are what we hire religion to do: Positive emotions, engagement (being in the moment and feeling on your game), relationships, meaning (in life) and a sense of achievement. Any of the stuff we do at Temple Sinai should include some of these outcomes. If it doesn’t, then Temple Sinai is not helping people flourish and not doing the job we were hired to do.

So, if you see me glassy eyed over the next few months and it seems like my brain is
working overtime, then it probably means I’m thinking about whether our congregation is
truly helping people flourish and truly doing the job that people hired it to do.

L’shalom/To Peace
Rabbi Malcolm Cohen

It Is Forbidden to Despair

I have spoken to many of you in the aftermath of the mass shooting. I have been moved by those conversations and how Las Vegas has pulled together as a city. After a service that same week, an Israeli journalist asked me, “Don’t you feel despair in such situations?” I replied, at times like these, I am reminded of the famous teaching of the Hasidic leader, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, where he said, “It is forbidden to despair. If it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for me.”

It is a simple phrase but hard to carry out. Sometimes, like that Sunday night at the beginning of October, we do feel despair, quite understandably. I certainly can’t imagine what the wounded and families of those who were murdered feel. They might well feel despair in their darker moments, so it’s up to us to go the other way, to set despair aside to help them.

For Rebbe Nachman of Breslov to say those words was a big deal. This was someone who lived a hard life at the end of the eighteenth century/beginning of the nineteenth century in the Ukraine. Two of his kids pre -deceased him, he suffered from bipolar disorder, was thwarted in his attempts to visit the land of Israel, and it was tuberculosis that killed him. Even with all of that, in the very last few days of his life, he exhorted his disciples not to despair, to not banish hope, to always continue believing in the possibility of goodness triumphing over evil.

I have a tendency to agree with him. When we see lines around the corner of people waiting to give blood, it’s forbidden to despair. When we see mountains of snacks, water and other supplies being taken to hospital waiting rooms, it’s forbidden to despair. When we hear the stories of first responders and members of the public putting themselves in danger for those they had never met during the mass shooting, it’s forbidden to despair. When we witness a city pulling together in love and kindness in direct response to great evil, it’s forbidden to despair.

L’shalom/To Peace

Rabbi Malcolm Cohen

Hop To It!

When I build my sukkah at home with my kids, it’s a labor of love, despite the cursing over my home improvement ineptitude. There is something beautiful about doing physical work and then enjoying the fruit of one’s labor by living in the sukkah for a whole week….which is where my invitation to our Temple Sinai Sukkah Hop comes in:

On Saturday night October 7, you are invited, not just to one Sukkah, Sarah and mine, but three! Two other houses, those of Ilana Shapiro and Toby Goldman, will be open for you to enjoy their style of sukkah building and enjoy each other’s company under the stars.

Why is this important? Why not just have a dinner party? Because it’s a mitzvah, a commandment, an aspect of our heritage which connects us to the divine, to dwell in the sukkah, even for one evening. You will smell the desert air, taste traditional fruits for this time of year, and get away from the buzzing and whirring of technology which
is inside the house.

Not only that, but spending even a small amount of time in the sukkah reminds us that
life is fragile. Not everyone in Vegas and beyond have solid homes to live in. So, hop to
it? Join us for the Sukkah Hop. Fulfil a beautiful mitzvah and help us build holy community.

Moadim l’simcha, seasons of joy to all of you!
Rabbi Malcolm Cohen

What Job Do We Hire Religion For?

Last month our water heater broke. We asked around for a plumber and found one. He arrived the next day, put in a new heater and we were back up and running soon enough. We paid him and were satisfied with the job that we hired him to do. It is a similar situation with a roofer, an electrician, a midwife. They have one job, they do it, they get paid. There is direct satisfaction.

The situation is more complicated when it comes to religion. People pay to be part of religious institutions So what job are those groups being paid to do? The answer comes from Rabbi Irwin Kula at the National Jewish Center for Learning & Leadership. He suggests that we hire religion to do the following seven things:

1. Connection: we want to be in a relationship with other humans. 2. Personal growth: we want to develop our mind, body and soul. 3. Social transformation: making the world a better place. 4. Meaning: finding our purpose in life. 5. Common Space: carving out a place where strangers become friends. 6. Creativity: increasing our curiosity and imagination. 7. Accountability: holding ourselves and others responsible for being ethical.

Now you might not agree with all of these, but religion has to do some of them otherwise it is not doing the job it was hired for. We do not just become members of shuls so that the shul exists for its own sake, to keep the doors open and the lights on, but for something greater and grander.

So, we look forward to seeing you at Temple Sinai in this busy month ahead, not just for the sake of it, but so we can connect, grow and find meaning.

L’shana tova u’metuka!

Have a good and sweet year!

Rabbi Malcolm Cohen, Sarah Stewart, Elijah & Rachel

A bigger welcome to families than ever before

It’s with great excitement that we welcome our newest members of staff, Alex Weisz, to the team. Alex will be our Community & Youth Engagement Coordinator. His primary responsibility will be to make families with school age kids feel even more part of the congregation. He will work alongside Heather, Dr. Knafo and myself to deepen the engagement of young people and their families.

Having just returned from summer camp, I know the value of young people who are fired up and proud of their Jewish identity. I spent time with teenagers who had come through the N.F.T.Y. framework (, and had used part of their High School experience to study in Israel and who were determined to be the next generation of Jewish leaders. It was my privilege in July to be the Rabbi for the C.I.T. (Counselors in Training) group at Camp
Newman and see them get excited about nurturing the hopes and dreams of their young camper charges.

Alex is here to cultivate all of that within Temple Sinai by getting to know the young families from an early age and building a community for them within our community. Please make him welcome and please respond to his requests for support, either by going to programs or ensuring your kids go to them! This is a wonderful new commitment to our families by Temple Sinai and we all wish Alex so much success and look forward to supporting him in his endeavors.

Rabbi Malcolm Cohen

Young And Old Together – That’s What Community Is All About!

At the end of May there was an incredibly inspiring event at Temple Sinai which was astonishingly wonderful. I did not even attend this event, I was actually the other side of the wall from it, but I was inspired nevertheless because of what it said about building a true community. The event in question was the kick-off session to an intergenerational cooking course, entitled “Plotz & Pans”, run by Ilana Shapiro, Sarah Stewart, Jackie & Shel Kolner.

The idea was to bring grandparents and parents, kids and grandkids together to cook Jewish food and learn about its origins. I was pretty envious of the forty or so people in the other room even though I also enjoyed our more traditional Shavuot celebration in the sanctuary. What did I love about it? Firstly, it was engaging people. Everyone eats and has an interest in food, so the event started with that and then brought some learning thereafter. Secondly, it was oversubscribed. There was a waiting list and the organizers had to squeeze people in. Lastly, it was different generations together.

That’s a true community, when young and old and everyone in between work together, live together, cook together and learn together. Too many times in our society the generations are disconnected. The young don’t listen or acknowledge the experience of the old and the old don’t understand or dismiss the fresh perspective of the young. Here, it was everyone mucking in together without a bit of tension. I can’t wait for the next installment of “Plotz & Pans”, so I can work and learn next to my kids. Feel free to join me…..if there’s space!!


Rabbi Malcolm Cohen

A Living Bridge

Even though we are far from Israel, we always should strive to be connected, construct a Gesher Chai, a Living Bridge, to her. This has to be done in the most concrete way possible to ensure that we carry out the mitzvah of Ahavat Tzion, love of the Land of Israel.

The best way to know the land is through the people, of course. That’s why I am pleased that Jewish Nevada
(formerly the Federation) is helping us financially to bring Rabbi Yael Karie over for our Congregational Retreat. Rabbi Karie is one of the trailblazing Reform Rabbis in Israel. She has been serving Kibbutzniks down near the Gaza border, bringing creative programming that even joins her Jewish charges with Bedouin and Muslim
counterparts in the area. She is one of the new generation of Israeli born Rabbis who believe that the Reform Movement there will bring Israeli society to a new level. We will enter into a long term partnership with Rabbi Karie as part of the Domim/Alike program, which brings Israeli and American Reform congregations together. One of
the best parts of the program is that it is partially funded by the Israeli government, which understands the mutual benefits of bridge-building.

What will this partnership look like? On the most basic level, we hope Rabbi Karie can visit us from time to time. It might be possible to see her in her natural habitat as well. Jewish Nevada is looking to take a family mission to Israel in June of 2018. By that time, Yael will probably be in a new job with a different congregation (it’s not public yet, but a great opportunity). Between face to face visits, the two of us will also
design programs whereby we can learn jointly with her Israeli congregants and do shared projects over the internet, even working out one-to-one contacts.

There are exciting times ahead and I am pleased that we, as a congregation, will be
able to take some initial steps across The Living Bridge.

L’shalom/To Peace
Rabbi Malcolm Cohen

Be The Voice For Those Who Were Silenced

Holocaust survivor Ben Lesser visited me in my office last month with his daughter. I had previously heard the amazing and disturbing story of his escape from the Nazis. They told me about a website they had launched.

WWW.I-SHOUT-OUT.ORG is dedicated to gathering together the voices of those who take a stand against prejudice in our society. The folks at I-SHOUT-OUT work every day to manage anti-bullying campaigns to eliminate hate and intolerance at their source: bullying. Their purpose is to make the world a more tolerant and peaceful place to live in for all people. Their anti-bullying campaign can make the powerless feel empowered; they want us to be a
part of the solution and join the millions that have become active participants of change to end the cycle of bullying. By choosing to SHOUT-OUT we help stand UP for those who cannot.

The I-SHOUT-OUT campaign is dedicated to building a more peaceful and tolerant world. At its extreme, bullying behavior can lead to the worst types of societies and genocides that we can imagine. The Holocaust and other tragedies all stem from the same root of intolerance. That’s why we have an obligation to end intolerance at its
source. Some of the victims of intolerance cannot speak up for themselves, they have been silenced.

So, how do you join the campaign? Go to the website and click on “shout-out now”. You then add your name, face and strength to the campaign. There are people from around the world who are making a stand against bigotry in all its forms. When you see people acting in a bigoted way to others it’s hard to do something, but if you
know you’re part of a worldwide group, you can gain strength from that. If Ben could thank you all individually, he would!

L’shalom/To Peace
Rabbi Malcolm Cohen

Feeding the Hungry, Teaching the Children

In March I was in Carson City with Nevadans for the Common Good. Our Temple is a member thereof and we work on issues with lots of other faith based institutions to make the lives of our local Nevadan population better, Jews and others included.

On this visit we were focusing on two main things, namely getting more funding for Meals on Wheels and seeing if the State can commit
to the weighted funding formula. For Meals on Wheels, Governor Brian Sandoval generously said recently that he wanted to
include one and a half million dollars for the next two years to help the program. This is really fantastic and would help stabilize what we have already. We were in Northern Nevada, seeing if we could exert pressure to get enough extra money that would clear the
waiting list of around 1000 people, some of whom live in our own neighborhood. The Jewish value of ‘ma’achil re’evim/feeding the hungry’ comes heavily into play here. Aside from the Jewish, ethical support for this program, there is also a pragmatic reason. It costs so much less if a person stays in their home compared to if they go to hospital or residential care. Nutritional meals several times a week help keep people in their own homes. Up until now, the State is 51st in the nation for local funding for such a program,
but because of the pressure of groups like Nevadans for the Common Good, of which Temple Sinai is a part, the governor and other legislators are coming to understand how important the program is.

The second issue we were talking about was public education. Joshua Ben Gamla states in the Talmud (Bava Batra 21a) that schools should be established in every place. We certainly have that in Nevada and many of them are wonderful, but there is always room
for improvement. Nevadans for the Common Good has been arguing for a while now that a bit more public money should be devoted to English Language Learners, students who benefit from Free and Reduced Lunches, and students with special needs, whether that be learning difficulties or gifted and talented students. Legislators actually voted this in during the last session. We have been pushing them to put their money where their vote is and are making this happen for real.

I have to say that it is a real joy to see one’s Jewish values applying to the wider world to help Jewish people and others. It is a great privilege to be involved in this work as a Rabbi and is totally vital alongside the work I do inside the Jewish community. I urge you to inform yourself about these issues. Contact me directly if you want to know more about Nevadans for the Common Good, and be in dialogue with your local legislators to make our corner of Nevada a little bit better.

L’shalom/To Peace
Rabbi Malcolm Cohen

I’m the Leader

This is the time of year when the synagogue looks for new Board members. Taking on such a job is a sacred responsibility and one not to be taken lightly. It is one of the great pleasures of my job to see new and inspiring people starting to step up. In the words of our tradition: “in a place where there are no people, strive to be a person” (pirke avot 2.5). This beautiful phrase implies that being on the Board is not something that everyone jumps to do, but just because it’s hard and no one else is stepping up, doesn’t mean that you are free to leave it to others.

There are different reasons for being on the Board. The best is that you get to shape the future and vision for the institution. On committees you get to deal more intimately with logistics and practicalities, but as a trustee you get to chart the strategic course and influence the lives of our hundreds of families. You get to have an effect on not just how many people join the synagogue, but how deep their involvement
goes. There is also the chance to build long-lasting relationships with fellow trustees. Lastly, there is an opportunity to deepen your own learning and engagement with Jewish life.

I know you might be busy, but often the best board members are. Consider bringing your skills and email to register your interest.

L’shalom/To Peace
Rabbi Malcolm Cohen