In an unusual double ceremony, on March 29, Congregation Shir Ami in Newtown, Pa., formally installed its two top clergy, Charles Briskin as senior rabbi and Rachel Kohlbrenner as cantor.
They began their tenure in July 2018.
Both were brought up in the Reform tradition, and for each it was a youth experience crafted by the movement that sparked the desire to serve the Jewish community in a leadership capacity.
Briskin, who grew up in Newton, Mass., graduated in 1991 from University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he was a leader in the campus Reform group. It was at a weekend retreat for student activists, held at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Cincinnati, where, he said, the determination “to go into the rabbinate and devote myself professionally to the Jewish community really took hold.”
After two years of studies at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles, he decided following his 2001 ordination to “try out the West Coast for a couple of years.”
That stretched into 17 years in California. He spent four as assistant, and then associate, rabbi at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, a large synagogue “in the heart of the Silicon Valley among some of the most innovative thought leaders in the technology world, who … when they affiliate bring knowledge, creativity, and innovation to synagogue life,” he said.
On the whole, he found that “on the West Coast there is a tremendous amount of creative Jewish expression,” Briskin said, attributing this to the fact that “communities are newer, less established, and have more room to do things in ways that they have not been done before….”
At Beth Am he worked with “a tremendous team of professionals,” giving him the opportunity to carry out “worship innovation and transformation, different projects with b’nei mitzvah, and interfaith outreach.”
Briskin expressed particular pride in being part of a clergy team, led by Rabbi Janet Marder, that in 2004 invited non-Jewish parents in the congregation to the bimah on Yom Kippur. “We gave them a blessing for … casting their families’ lot with the Jewish people and the congregation and honored them for all they were doing to create Jewish life in their family and community,” he said. Many of them said they felt “celebrated and validated” by the experience, Briskin said.
He then served for 13 years as rabbi at Temple Beth El in San Pedro, Calif., where he helped transform the 250-family congregation into a more sophisticated organization, in part by cultivating a greater partnership between board and staff members. He also changed the traditional sanctuary service to allow “different expressions of spiritual engagement.”
Social justice efforts were his focus as well. He served on the Commission for Social Action of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, helping to write a resolution on transgender rights, and cochaired a national immigration justice initiative.
At the congregation he led efforts addressing the Los Angeles homeless crisis, working with clergy and city officials to ensure the humane treatment of homeless people. Under his leadership, Temple Beth El initiated its Safe Parking program, where people forced to live in their cars were allowed to spend nights in the synagogue’s parking lot.
It was, in fact, his “deep involvement locally and nationally with issues of social justice,” he said, that, in addition to his overall experience, led Shir Ami to choose him as religious leader.
He returned to the East Coast with his wife, Karen, and two teenage sons.
Kohlbrenner grew up attending Miami’s Temple Beth Am, where she sang in the children’s choir (and where her mother continues to serve as music director). She was active in her North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) chapter, developing creative services for the group, and was involved in social action, including as a volunteer counselor at a weekend camp for inner-city children from Atlanta.
For her, it was visiting the Kotel in Jerusalem during a NFTY summer trip that made her realize she was meant to be a cantor. “It was one of those very powerful, spiritually awakening moments,” she said. “I knew this was what I was meant to do with my life.”
After graduating in 2004 from University of Florida-Gainesville — where she majored in Jewish studies, was a leader in the campus Reform group at Hillel, and led High Holiday services there — she enrolled in HUC-JIR’s School of Sacred Music.
After her 2009 investment, Kohlbrenner took on a varied schedule of teaching and other positions, among them as youth director at the Central Synagogue of Rockville Centre on Long Island. She was hired a year later and served as cantor until last year.
Kohlbrenner expressed pride in the programs for youth and young families she created at Central Synagogue, which, she said, “is now considered one of the most family-friendly places in the area.”
She attributed her attraction to Shir Ami to her readiness “to expand, to grow, and to work at a larger synagogue” — Shir Ami has about 600 member families — “where there was a larger core of people with similar values to what I wanted.” At Shir Ami she has found a congregation that is “young and vibrant,” that values social action and music (Shir Ami has a choir and a synagogue band), and is involved in “engaging young families and doing outreach and connecting with the larger community….”
Kohlbrenner and her husband, Erik, have two daughters.
At Shir Ami, Briskin replaced Rabbi Joel Simon, who, after three years as senior rabbi, returned to Congregation Schaarai Zedek in Tampa, Fla. Kohlbrenner succeeded Cantor Mark Elson, who retired after 33 years at Shir Ami.
Working together this year, Kohlbrenner said, “has been a great experience of learning this community together and getting a chance to each offer our strengths, which are different yet complement each other.”
Briskin said his near-term goals for Shir Ami include “developing ways to engage our congregation more deeply around areas of justice work, spiritual growth, and learning and working to build a stronger community.”