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Family a Part of Rabbinical History : Michele Paskow-Cohen is one of 325 women rabbis nationwide, and belongs to one of the few father-daughter rabbi teams in the country.

September 23, 1993|LEO SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Aaron Daniel Cohen's relatives have started referring to him as the "Rabbi in Training." That may seem like a rather formidable nickname to tag on the guy, especially when you consider that he's just 1 1/2 years old.

But take into account the toddler's roots.

Aaron's grandpa, Shimon Paskow, has been the rabbi at Temple Etz Chaim in Thousand Oaks since 1969. His mom, Rabbi Michele Paskow-Cohen, is in her second year as the religious leader of Congregation B'nai Emet in Simi Valley.

(And don't forget Aaron's father, Cantor Jeffrey Cohen, who shares the Etz Chaim pulpit with his father-in-law, leading the congregation in the musical portions of the service.)

So the religious field is not exactly a long shot for little Aaron.

Regardless of whether Aaron becomes a third generation rabbi, the Paskows are already part of rabbinical history.

MEMBER OF SELECT GROUP

As with other major religions, the presence of women in important Jewish clerical positions is a fairly new concept. His mother is one of 325 women rabbis in the nation. And his grandfather and mother hold the distinction of being the only father-daughter chaplains in the armed forces.

The reformed Jewish movement began accepting women rabbis in 1972, with the Reconstructionist movement following immediately thereafter. The first woman rabbi in the conservative movement was ordained in 1985. And the orthodox movement has yet to see its first woman rabbi.

As rare as women rabbis are, they represent a relative glut, when compared with the number who share the title with their fathers.

"I'm sure we're talking about a handful of father-daughter rabbis in the country now," said Rabbi Allan Kensky, associate dean of the Rabbinical School of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. "Ten would be on the high side."

Carol Paskow, Shimon's wife and Michele's mother, is proud that her husband and daughter are among the small group. She sees them as being at the forefront of a significant and overdue shift in the practice of Judaism.

"Men have been doing it for 5,000 years--following their fathers and becoming rabbis," she said. "Now, I think you will see more women following in the footsteps of their fathers who are rabbis, maybe in the footsteps of their mothers who are rabbis."

Talk about following footsteps. The Paskows have practically worn the same shoes.

Paskow, 61, and Paskow-Cohen, 30, were both ordained by the Hebrew Union College of New York. They both had their ordination ceremonies at the same New York synagogue. They both serve as rabbis in the U.S. Army Reserve. They even met their respective spouses in respective synagogues.

And now they both lead Jewish congregations in east Ventura County. "But," assured Paskow, "there is no nepotism."

The influence of the two rabbis is far-reaching. Paskow's conservative Temple Etz Chaim, incorporated in 1963, has about 750 member families. Most of the congregants come from Ventura County, but people come from the San Fernando Valley to the east and Santa Maria to the north.

Paskow-Cohen's B'nai Emet has a membership of about 100 families. The congregation has been around for 14 years, but rented its first permanent facility earlier this month. Previously, it had been renting space in a neighboring church.

Those who have watched father and daughter work say they have similar goals: to make Judaism appealing to a Jewish community that is becoming increasingly assimilated.

"Their approach really is that the bema (pulpit) itself does not belong exclusively to the rabbi and the cantor," Cohen said. "It belongs to the entire congregation."

Paskow-Cohen, the first permanent rabbi in the history of B'nai Emet--previous rabbis have been students--said her role is, in part, to show people what Judaism has to offer.

"We try to get people involved and make it meaningful to them," she said. "Most people here aren't involved not because they don't care, but because they don't realize Judaism is there, or because it's not interesting. . . . I think the rabbi's role is to be a teacher. That's what my great love is, to be able to share what I think is so exciting and exhilarating."

Like daughter, like father.

"A rabbi is a teacher of traditions, of the Torah, of the text," Paskow said. "A rabbi's role is to understand it all, to interpret it, to give a moral lesson, to give some meaning to life."

At last week's Rosh Hashanah services, Paskow reminded the congregants that it was exactly 50 years ago that the people of Denmark saved their Jewish population from the Nazis. Of course, the story had a moral.

"We are thankful and grateful to the Danes for what they did," he said. "And what the lesson is, is that there are good people in the world also, not everybody is evil. You must always see the good rather than just the evil."

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