It is the day after the Annual Membership meeting and my election as President of Beth Ami for the 2nd time in my life. The first time was almost 20 years ago—the 3rd year after becoming a member of the shul. I appreciate the confidence and support of the many members who encouraged me to become President again. Being President of the shul brings challenges and responsibilities, but at the same time it is rewarding. My first experience as President was wonderful and deepened my connection to Beth Ami and its members.
Many of you know me and others may not. So, for my first article as President, I am sharing a bit about myself.
I was born in San Francisco and was the third of 4 children. I have lived in San Francisco and the North Bay for my entire life, except for the years I served in USAF. My parents, Willy and Carol z’l, fled Germany separately to Shanghai, married there, and lived in the poorest of conditions for almost 10 years. I never got to know any of my grandparents—my paternal grandfather died in World War I and my paternal grandmother was murdered at Trawniki—one of the lesser known concentration camps near Auschwitz. My mother’s parents were divorced—my maternal grandmother fled to Shanghai with my mother and came to the United States with my parents. She died when I was about 2 years old so I have no memories of her.
Many years ago a book was published entitled Twice Blessed—On Being Lesbian or Gay and Jewish. I am a proud American Gay and Jewish man. If you were fortunate enough to attend our Sukkah of Shalom about 1–1/2 years ago, you would have heard about my journey as a Gay man. I may be thrice-blessed because I am also a vegetarian.
I attended the University of San Francisco and graduated summa cum barely with an Accounting degree. I was one of the about 6% of CPA candidates who pass the entire exam at the first sitting. I attribute my academic success to my mother who became involved in setting me on the correct path in my early grammar school years when, suffice it say, I was not the most diligent student.
I have worked in public and private accounting for a Fortune 500 company and smaller companies. I was also fortunate to work for almost 4 years in the non-profit sector at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. Now, I am approaching the twilight of my career and if all goes as planned, I will retire in February 2018.
I am a classic social introvert. For those of you familiar with the Meyers Briggs Personality test, the scale does not extend far enough to measure my level of introvertedness. It is a challenge to be an introvert in an extroverted world. In social settings, I may at times appear aloof when in reality my introverted personality has taken a dominant role.
Reading is one of my greatest pleasures. I own more books than I will probably ever read in this lifetime. I enjoy outdoor activities. On my recent vacation to Kauai I hiked, kayaked, snorkeled and went zip lining. Among the outdoor activities I enjoy is gardening and the rose is my favorite flower. No genre of music moves me more than opera.
I was a raised in a religiously-observant home, but not to an excess. Candles were lit on Friday nights and periodically we would attend Shabbat services. Keeping us home from school on both days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to attend shul was the norm regardless of what may be happening at school. Our family belonged to a congregation founded by German Jews who immigrated to Shanghai. The congregation had a large elderly population. My parents were part of the younger generation. We were one of the few families with young children. The Rabbi was advanced in years and had been tortured by the Nazis. He preached in German. I understand and speak German, but not the type of German that is used in sermons. Whenever the Rabbi preached, it felt like an eternity. I remember on multiple occasions my father standing up in the middle of the Rabbi’s sermons and waving his finger communicating to him that he had talked long enough.
My Jewish education was virtually non-existent. Our Sunday school had 6–8 students—we were all taught in one class. There were 2 students, and I was not one of them, who excelled in Hebrew and received more attention and praise than those of us who really needed more help in learning.
My Bar Mitzvah was literally a traumatic experience on multiple levels and left a lasting scar that still causes me pain to this day. My only desire was to get through that day and then run away as far as possible from the synagogue. My only participation for many years was attending the Yamim Noraim. It would be 30 years, until I arrived here at Beth Ami that I would stand in front of the shul and lead a portion of services. I owe a debt of gratitude to Rabbi Slater for creating a safe environment and encouraging me to slowly peel off the scar tissue.
I never ceased being Jewish, although no one could have faulted me if I has chosen to never again have association with a synagogue. What pulled me back to eventually become President of Beth Ami and now to do so for a 2nd time? There are 2 teachings that stand out in my mind. I was exposed to the lessons of Rebbe Levi Yitzak of Berditchev—one of the most pious men who ever lived and most likely one of the 36 tzadikkim believed to roam the world at any time. The other comes from more recent literature and the hands of Elie Wiesel, z’l. On the dedication page of his book, A Jew Today, is a quote from his grandfather Dodye Feig, z’l, who perished in the Holocaust. The words are simple and profound: “You are Jewish, your task is to remain Jewish. The rest is up to G’d.” I hear those words over and over again, almost like a lament. It is a cry from my grandmother and the 6 million who perished in the Shoah to: never forget us. And, I hear the voices of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel challenging me to carry and pass the torch of Judaism to future generations.
I hope that in one way or the other you too hear the same lament and that working together over the next two years we establish a path for Beth Ami so that it continues to be a light unto our feet and for generations who come after us.
Henry Cohn, President