Though not particularly large in quantity, Santa Barbara’s Jewish community enjoys an extremely vibrant quality of their shared spiritual and social experience. This is especially true for members of Congregation B’nai B’rith and UCSB’s Hillel chapter, and that’s almost entirely due to the 30 years of forward-thinking service by Rabbi Steve Cohen. He’s exponentially grown the size of both communities by encouraging diversity of thought, revitalizing worship, and incorporating the great outdoors into the modern Jewish experience.
“In a place like Santa Barbara, where there isn’t a huge Jewish population, there is more of a desire and a need to hold everybody together rather than splinter into different communities,” explained Cohen, a Harvard grad from Rochester, New York, who started at UCSB Hillel at age 28 after finishing rabbi school in 1985. He grew that organization from just a handful of active members to more than 200 over 20 years and, upon taking over at B’nai B’rith 10 years ago, nearly doubled the number of households involved, from about 450 to 800.
“The challenge here is to create a community that’s strong enough to tolerate a lot of diversity, both religious and political,” said Cohen, who admits that can lead to tension around ideas about Israel and the Middle East. “The philosophy I have attempted to hold is that we create a space for civil discourse,” he said. “I know for a fact that we have people on the left and on the right who feel their views are not well represented. But for the most part, our community would agree that what we are striving for is a place where a diversity of views are welcomed and actually needed.”
Upon coming to the synagogue on San Antonio Creek Road in 2004, Cohen immediately professionalized the organization, hiring an executive director and evolving the temple from a volunteer-based program to a more business-minded nonprofit, which was able to afford a $2 million renovation and raise more than $100,000 to build a preschool in Rwanda. He also put some needed spice into the services. “I see worship as a basic human need,” said Cohen, whose services are full of songs and smiles. “I like making Jewish worship come alive and be authentic and honest and exciting and fun.”
From exploring Rattlesnake Canyon with UCSB students in his Hillel days to taking today’s religious school students on short hikes through Tucker’s Grove, the spirituality of the outdoors is an increasingly strong focus for Cohen, who conquered the 220-mile John Muir Trail two years ago with his wife, Marian Cohen. Most visible is the service he holds at Goleta Beach during Rosh Hashanah, when more than 250 congregants come to toss bread crumbs into the ocean to cast off the old year and prepare for the next. “I love it,” said the very content rabbi. “I think everyone loves it.”
Congregation B’nai B’rith celebrates Rabbi Steve Cohen’s service Saturday, January 24, 6 p.m. at the Bacara Resort & Spa. See cbbsb.org.