Sisterhood Blog

The 'Friday Night Lights' Rabbi

By Gloria Feldt

  • Print
  • Share Share
courtesy of Rabbi Holly Cohn
Rabbi Holly Cohn

On the day I was to interview Rabbi Holly Cohn, the new spiritual leader at the lone congregation serving a 100-mile radius of West Texas, at Odessa’s tiny Temple Beth El, the television series “Friday Night Lights” was trending on Twitter. The story of the fictional town of Dillon, Tex., where high school football is a central cultural focus, was about to end its final season.

I could only hope that Rabbi Holly, as she calls herself, would not see this as a negative sign. As the show’s fans know, “Dillon” is actually Odessa, a town where I lived for 20 years and the football team is based on Odessa’s Permian High School Panthers.

Temple Beth El, which self-identifies as Conservo-Ortho-Reform since it must appeal to all denominational tastes, has just brought in its first full-time rabbi. Cohn, a 42-year-old, yarmulke-and-tallit-wearing female Reform rabbi, has been hired as its quarterback. The congregation hopes she will revitalize its shrinking community and attract the unaffiliated Jews scattered around the windswept area.

In the 1960s and ‘70s, when I was a member, it had 65 affiliated families and a religious school bursting at its seams. Services were lay led and part-time rabbis were brought in for major holidays and bar mitzvahs (no bat mitzvahs back then, and when I co-led the first Sisterhood Sabbath, some congregants viewed women on the bimah as a shande). Membership has now fallen to around 35 families, with just seven children in the religious school.

Football and traditional religion share androcentrism. How delicious that if this congregation is to thrive or even survive, it will be a woman leading these Jews to the promised land. And Cohn might be especially well prepared for the task.

After longing to be a rabbi since a teen trip to Israel, but taking a detour through several years of working in advertising, Cohn was ordained by Hebrew Union College 11 years ago.

She is excited by the challenge her new community presents and says that being in an isolated location like Odessa has advantages. “I especially love direct people work. That’s what appeals about the West Texas position,” says Cohn. “I’m able to drive the 87 miles to where we have an older member who can’t get to services. If I do a hospital visit, I can stay and listen. I can be there for people and be part of the community.”

What’s ahead for Jews in isolated communities like Odessa? Assimilation and intermarriage have taken a toll there perhaps more than in urban areas with large Jewish communities. “Where there isn’t a deli, a Federation, a JCC, the congregation becomes more important,” she says. The congregation has a higher ratio of participants in weekly services than big city synagogues often do, she says.

Using new media is part of her strategy. “I know how to appeal to people, how to be creative about finding solutions.” She plans, for example, to set up Skype sessions with children in the religious school and kids in Israel.

The Torah portion her first week at Temple Beth El was about Miriam’s well bringing forth water for the Israelites wandering in the desert. That evening, rain fell in the parched West Texas expanse. Her son said that must be a positive sign for them in their new home.

Rumor has it that “Friday Night Lights” may next have a movie sequel. Will Cohn create a new future for the Jews of West Texas? She may score a touchdown.

Gloria Feldt is the author of “No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power” and a frequent speaker on women, power and leadership. Her 30-year career with Planned Parenthood began as executive director of its West Texas affiliate in 1974 and culminated as national president from 1996 to 2005.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Texas, Reform, Football

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.