Kneseth Israel Welcomes New Rabbi

Article excerpt

Byline: Cheryl Chojnacki Daily Herald Correspondent

Just in time for the Jewish High Holy Days, which begin Saturday with Rosh Hashana, worshippers at Elgin's Congregation Kneseth Israel welcome a new rabbi to guide them through their holiest season.

Rabbi Jonathan Kohn accepted the invitation to minister at Kneseth Israel because "this was a lovely congregation," he said.

"The people were sweet, they were welcoming, they were eager for education, they asked interesting questions and they seemed comfortable with each other."

The rabbi arrived a few weeks ago from Great Neck, a bedroom community of New York City located on Long Island, where he grew up and where he returned to lead a synagogue after having served other Jewish congregations in Connecticut, Texas and North Carolina.

Kohn's family name is notable in the history of one branch of American Judaism. His grandfather, the late Rabbi Eugene Kohn, helped establish the small but influential movement known as Reconstructionist Judaism in the 1930s.

Reconstructionist Jews have a humanist take on religion, Kohn said, and do not accept the authority of traditional Jewish law. He was raised on the liberal theology, but as a young man in graduate school Kohn recognized that his own outlook had always been more traditional.

He embraced Conservative Judaism and, in so doing, embraced Jewish law found in Torah, the first five books of the Bible "and everything that comes from them," Kohn said. "It has the right to command us, and it does."

Kohn was working on a master's degree in Minneapolis in 1976 when his heritage began to assert itself. There, he said, "I discovered I couldn't take being Jewish for granted as I could in New York City, where Judaism flourishes.

"The other thing was that as a graduate student I had no time to myself. I always had the obligation to study, to write, to move forward toward earning my degree," he said. "It was the Shabbat (Sabbath) that gave me the opportunity to lift my head above that and take a breather. I found that time off connected me with something more valuable than the literary studies.

"There was something of eternity in that seventh day of Shabbat."

There also was something of a new career. Kohn had explored different career possibilities, first in a high-ability math program at Rutgers University and later as a student of philosophy. He also enrolled in theater classes, directed radio dramas and wrote and directed plays for the Jewish community, but always considered that theater would be merely an avocation.

He set his sights on teaching college. Kohn earned his bachelor's degree in philosophy before switching to English, but a few credits shy of a master's from the University of Minnesota, Kohn decided not to become a professor after all. …