Rabbi Steve Cohen
has served as the senior rabbi of Congregation B’nai B’rith since 2004, after nineteen years as the rabbi and Executive Director of the Hillel Foundation at UC Santa Barbara.
In his capacity as senior rabbi, Steve’s primary responsibilities include teaching adults and youth, guiding the development of the congregation’s educational, worship, social action and cultural programs, providing pastoral counseling for congregants in need, helping families move through the great passages of life (birth, coming of age, marriage and death) with love and meaning, and working closely with the volunteer leadership of the congregation to build a vibrant Jewish community. …Click to read more
Find videos of Rabbi Cohen’s most recent sermons in our Livestream archive, or click on the links below to read a selection of some of his favorite sermons.
Sermons from UCSB Hillel:
- Issac and Ishmael, 1985
- Sexual Ethics, Yom Kippur 1986
- On Fasting, Yom Kippur 1993
- Two Kinds of Solitude, Yom Kippur 1994
- On Halakha, For PARR Talk 1995
- Going Barefoot on Yom Kippur, Yom Kippur, 1998
- After the 9/11 Attack on the World Trade Center, Rosh HaShanah, 2001
- College as Standing at Sinai, Yom Kippur, 2001
- The Time Being, Yom Kippur 2002
Sermons from CBB:
- First Shabbat Sermon at Congregation B’nai B’rith, August 6, 2004
- On God, CCAR Convention, March 30, 2005
- After a Trip to Israel, December 29, 2006
- Frailty and Strength at Sinai, February 9, 2007
- Trip to Crimea, June 29, 2007
- Hanukkah and Miracles, December 19, 2008
- Two Kinds of Reform Judaism, March 7, 2008
- Leonard Cohen, September 4, 2009
- Why We Need Israel, Rosh Hashanah 2010
- Is Shakespeare Torah?, July 23, 2010
- Yom Kippur Shabbat, Yom Kippur 2010
- The Stars, August 10, 2012
- The Muslims and Us, Yom Kippur morning 2012
- John Muir Trail Sermon, August 30, 2013
- Rosh HaShanah and Memory, Rosh Hashanah 2013
- Ubumwe Preschool Sermon, April 26, 2013
- After the Charlie Hebdo Attack in Paris, January 9, 2015
- Brexit, Trump, and Walled Cities, June 24, 2016
- Calling Santa Barbara Home, March 4, 2016
- My Father, Rosh Hashanah morning, October 3, 2016
- Hamilton and Prayer, Yom Kippur evening, September 29, 2017
- The Strange Idea of the Mishkan, March 3, 2017
- The Montecito Disaster: The Mountains Melted Like Wax, January 12, 2018
Seven Circles: A Framework for Jewish Practice
Rabbi Cohen’s “Seven Circles” suggests a framework for a shared Jewish life that can help us think together about who we are and how we seek to live.
In developing Seven Circles, Rabbi Cohen offers an invitation to learn about the pillars of our heritage and to explore and deepen our purpose in continuing to come together as a Jewish community.
Each section below explores one of the seven circles, along with ideas for your own personal practice and possibilities for getting involved at Congregation B’nai B’rith.
The strength of our approach to Judaism is also its weakness. At Congregation B’nai B’rith, each adult Jew has the freedom and the responsibility to determine what God wants from him or her. No other human being—not our parents, not our friends, not the Temple, not our rabbi—can tell us how we should live.
This philosophy fits well with the spirit of our age. Unlike Jews of ancient times or the Middle Ages, we live in a culture that exalts individual freedom. To most contemporary Jews, individual choice seems like common sense. This is the great strength of Reform Judaism.
But it is also our weakness. For if each of us is completely free to choose how we will live, then what binds us together as a community? What do we really share with each other and with other Jews throughout time and around the world? How can our philosophy lead to a shared Jewish language and a shared Jewish way of life?
As we move forward as a Jewish community, I offer The Seven Circles as an attempt to get us talking about these questions together.
—Rabbi Steve Cohen
These seven “circles” are seven aspects of a complete Jewish life. Within each of these circles, each of us will make our own unique and personal choices. While we strive to live in all circles, each of us will probably make different choices at different times in our own life. Moreover, though we will not intentionally ignore any of the seven circles, certain ones may speak to us more strongly than others, reflecting our individuality both as people and as a community.
How any one of us chooses to celebrate the Jewish festivals, or to pray, or to carry out acts of compassion, or to pursue life-long learning, may be radically different from many of our fellow congregants. But our shared commitment to living in some way in all seven circles will bind us to each other.
Why seven? It could just as easily have been five or six or ten. But since ancient times, seven has been the Jewish number of completeness. The seven days of the week and the seven years of the Sabbatical cycle are just two examples of the old Jewish association of seven with wholeness and holiness.
You will see that the seven circles form two triads, (one comprised of Rabbi Shimon the Righteous’ Three Pillars of Study, Prayer, and Acts of Compassion; and a second containing three levels of sacred time), and a final central circle of the Jewish People. Noticing these groupings, you may find that this booklet offers you a new way of thinking about the six-pointed Jewish star.
We are the “People of the Book,” a nation of readers. Judaism regards study as a sacred act, in which we join our own mind to the minds of Jews throughout the ages, and thereby become part of the immortal tradition of Torah…
Study in Judaism does not mean amassing greater and greater quantities of information. Jewish study is a process of thinking, of inquiring and probing the ultimate questions of life: Who are we? What are we here for? How should we live? What can we hope for? These questions admit no final answers, and so our religion calls us to go on asking them throughout our lifetime.
Our sacred texts contain strange and wonderful stories and teachings from distant times and faraway lands. But most importantly, they offer us an honest encounter with another human soul. Perhaps the soul of a teacher who lived two thousand years ago; perhaps the soul of our study partner sitting across the text from us. In those meetings, we discover new depths of our own soul and new meaning for our own life.
• Find a partner for regular Jewish learning together (this is called learning in chevruta)
• Buy a Torah commentary and read the weekly Torah portion
• Arrive at services just in time for the teaching/discussion
• Subscribe to and read regularly a Jewish magazine or newspaper (e.g. Moment, The Jerusalem Report, Reform Judaism, The LA Jewish Journal)
• Bookmark and regularly visit Jewish learning websites on the internet (e.g. www.myjewishlearning.com or www.urj.org/torah/)
• Subscribe to the Reform Movement’s daily email, “10 Minutes of Torah”.
• Teach in the CBB Jewish Learning Programs (not for the faint of heart)
• Attend adult ed classes or lectures by guest speakers at CBB
• Learn to chant Torah or haftarah
• Buy Jewish books for your home (even if you don’t read them, your children might!)
• Religious School Kindergarten through Confirmation
• Adult Education classes:
Lunch and Learn
Adult B’nai Mitzvah
Intro to Judaism
Jewish Current Events
• Saturday Morning Live monthly breakfast and speaker
• Reiger Scholar-in-Residence
• Guest teachers and speakers
• The Library!
The great contemporary thinker and writer Adin Steinsaltz writes that just as we swing daily between sleep and waking, so too we need to oscillate between the two opposing modes of study and prayer…
In study, we question, we critique, we analyze. We ask and ask, and every question is not only permitted but encouraged. In prayer, on the other hand, we let go of our questions and step out of our critical minds. In prayer we become simple and whole-hearted.
For many of us, simplicity does not come easily. We have been raised to always question both others and ourselves, and find it almost impossible to turn off the inner voice of doubt and disbelief. But Steinsaltz’s insight may help us to see that a balanced Jewish life allows and even requires us to move constantly back and forth between the two equally essential modes of doubt and faith.
Each of us will find our own doorway into the mode of prayer: for many, music has the power to move us from doubt to faith. For others, silence. For yet others, the ancient poetry of our Hebrew prayer book has the power to shift our consciousness from the eager, vital, hungry mode of questioning to the still, quiet, deep mode of simplicity.
• Make a practice of reciting the Shma at bedtime
• Set a regular time during the day to meditate (check out Jewish Meditation by Aryeh Kaplan)
• Say a blessing and take a moment to think before eating
• Attend services at Temple
• Go shul-hopping. Explore the various synagogues of Santa Barbara and begin to learn what helps you pray
• Learn to wrap tefillin (leather phylacteries) and begin each day with shacharit (Jewish sunrise prayers)
• Say a mi shebeirach prayer for those in need of healing
• Walking alone on the beach, or in the mountains, talk out loud to God in English, sharing everything that is in your heart (this is an old Jewish practice called hitbodedut)
• Sitting alone or with someone you love, turn on a CD of sacred music (whatever that is to you) and allow the music to lift you to heaven
• Morning minyan (Mondays & Thursdays 6:45am)
• Celebrate High Holy Day services
• Shiva minyans in private homes for families in mourning
Acts of Compassion
In many of the most profound exchanges of our life, we are completely unaware of the significance of our own acts of compassion; so we should not weigh them or compare them against those of any other person…
Musing on the mysterious purpose at the heart of human existence, Albert Einstein wrote, “one thing we do know is that we are here for each other.” “Many times a day,” he continued, “I realize how much I must give in return for all that I have received and am still receiving.”
We live together with the rest of humanity in a constant state of exchange, throughout our lives both receiving and giving sustenance, shelter, insight, courage and companionship. These exchanges may be as simple and seemingly small as a smile or a word of encouragement. Or they may be as fundamental as the meal that saves the life of a starving child.
Jewish tradition nudges and encourages us to seize the opportunity for acts of compassion that come our way: visiting the sick, inviting a lonely person into our home, helping someone find a job, extending a loan,
befriending a widow/widower, supporting a soup kitchen, helping two enemies to reconcile. It is far beyond our power to eliminate all the suffering of this world, but without the ongoing giving and receiving of human acts of compassion, the world we love would collapse.
Visit a friend or acquaintance in the hospital
• Offer to visit with a housebound friend, to give their family care-giver time off
• Volunteer on the Board or Committee of a non-profit
• Bring a meal to a family in mourning
• Bring a meal to a family with a newborn
• Become active in local or national politics
• Volunteer as a Big Brother or Big Sister or mentor in school
• Join one of CBB’s Social Action projects (see below)
• Give tsedakah (charitable gifts)
• Talk with a homeless person
• Provide a loan to help someone start a business
• Provide loans to individuals in need by supporting Santa Barbara Hebrew Free Loan
• Invite a single, a widow/widower, or a newcomer to your home for Shabbat or weeknight dinner
• Mentor area youth through Youth Interactive
• Attend Mitzvah Day (CBB’s community-wide day of volunteering)
• Serve meals at Transition House
• Donate food to Santa Barbara Food Bank, or through CBB’s High Holy Day food drive
• Volunteer with CBB Caring Community, which brings meals and friendly visits to CBB members in need
• Drive senior citizens to Temple on Friday night and other Temple holidays and activities
The Festival Year
Most first graders can tell you that October is the month of pumpkins, November the month of turkey, and February the month of chocolate and valentines. To be a member of a particular culture is to know viscerally the distinctive colors, images, tastes, songs and stories of each season of the year. The Jewish year has its own sequence of tastes and songs and colors…
The Jewish festivals are a symphony in food, in text, in symbol and in song, expressing with outrageous humor and awesome profundity every great idea and emotion of our religion. With the holidays and their sensory messages, we initiate our children into the Jewish culture, and each year we add a chapter to the book of our own Jewish life.
The primary festivals are seven:
PASSOVER, season of birth, of new love, freedom and matzah.
SHAVUOT, recalling a mountain in the desert on fire with the voice of God.
ROSH HASHANAH, the cry of the ram’s horn and apples and honey.
YOM KIPPUR, day of fasting, purity and exaltation.
SUKKOT, magical meals under the stars in a richly decorated sukkah.
CHANUKAH, mid-winter festival of light and latkes.
PURIM, marking the end of winter with masks, costumes, and hamentaschen.
It takes courage and creativity to live by the rhythms of the Jewish year in a town with a small Jewish population. With good friends, however, it becomes not only possible but fun.
• Take Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur seriously as a time for self examination
• Fast on Yom Kippur
• Build a sukkah, eat your meals in it, & invite guests (Jewish and non-Jewish) to your sukkah
• Light the Hanukkah menorah all eight nights
• Bake hamantaschen on Purim and give some to your friends
• Wear a costume to Temple on Purim
• Conduct your own Passover seder
• Stay up all night studying on Shavuot
• Plant a tree/garden on Tu B’Shvat
• Have a bonfire on Lag Baomer
• Acknowledge the Jewish festivals with candles and a special meal your home for Shabbat or weeknight dinner
Read more about our Festival Year offerings at CBB on our CELEBRATE page
• High Holy Day services
• Tashlikh (casting sins and breadcrumbs) at Goleta Beach with the entire Santa Barbara Jewish community
• Break the Fast gatherings after Yom Kippur
• Congregational dinner on the first night of Sukkot
• Singing and dancing with the Torah on Simchat Torah
• Hanukkah celebration, candle-lighting and party
• Purim megillah reading, shpiel and carnival
• Community Passover seder
• All-night Shavuot and Torah reading on the beach at sunrise
• Temple Sisterhood Gift Shop, which stocks ritual and holiday items throughout the year
The Cycle of Life
Our planet earth is teeming with living organisms, all inter-connected in a biological web of birth, growth, reproduction and death. We humans are part of the web.
Over the centuries, Judaism has developed life-cycle rituals which celebrate the biological reality of our lives, but which also insist that the meaning of our lives transcends biology…
Over the centuries, Judaism has developed life-cycle rituals which celebrate the biological reality of our lives, but which also insist that the meaning of our lives transcends biology. When a boy is born, we acknowledge the importance of biology by marking the organ of sexual reproduction; but at the same time, we give the baby (both boys and girls) their name, a sacred word which ushers them into the spiritual realm of language.
A biological event, puberty, marks the beginning of Jewish adulthood. But we celebrate puberty with initiation into Torah, the Tree of Life through which we Jews are able to live on after our own death. The pattern is the same with marriage and with death. In all our rites of passage, Judaism declares that we are of the earth: we live and die and, like all living creatures, we are driven to reproduce. But at the same time, our life cycle rituals express another truth, which is that within our living and dying bodies, lives an immortal soul.
• Choose a Jewish name for your child or yourself
• Have your baby boy circumcised by our local mohel
• Hold a baby-naming for a baby girl
• Link significant privileges and responsibilities to your child’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah (e.g. decisions about bedtime, homework, allowance, chores, etc.)
• Have a Jewish wedding (e.g. ketuba, chuppah, breaking glass, bedecken, mikveh, circle dancing at the party)
• If you are not Jewish and are married to a Jew, consider converting to Judaism (the clergy are happy to discuss this)
• If you divorce, go through the Jewish ritual of the get
• Before death, prepare an Ethical Will (an old Jewish custom of writing down your values for your children and grandchildren)
• When death is approaching, say the vidui (final words) and Shema (family and/or clergy can help with this)
• Follow Jewish burial and mourning practices (shiva seven day mourning, shloshim thirty-day period, yahrzeit anniversary of passing, yizkor memorial prayers recited on festivals, etc).
• Baby-namings before the congregation on Friday nights
• Bar/Bat Mitzvah program includes four years of Hebrew, learning the melodies for chanting, writing a speech, and family participation in the Bnai Mitzvah educational program.
• Clergy perform weddings; congregants are encouraged to hold their wedding at the Temple
• Clergy perform funerals, memorial services
• Caring Community helps organize shiva minyan (gathering for prayer at home of family in mourning)
• Congregational email informs entire congregation immediately upon the death of one of our members
• Monthly birthday blessing on first Friday night of the month
• Blessings on the bimah for anniversaries, special occasions
It may seem strange at first that observing the Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments. Do we really need to be commanded to rest? And is rest really so important that it belongs in the “Top Ten” commandments? Yes and yes…
Our work is never done. There are always responsibilities demanding our attention. Bills to be paid and commitments to be fulfilled. A house to be repaired and calls to be answered. Because our work is never done, the Torah commands us to rest, and carves out one-seventh of our life in which we are freed from all of our “doing,” free to simply “be”…with family, with friends, by ourselves and with God.
To step out of the rat race of our work lives once every seven days can at first be terribly difficult. We may feel guilty, imagining that we are being lazy or irresponsible. And so the Torah commands us to observe the Shabbat, and with that command the Torah sets us free.
• Light candles and say blessings at home on Friday night
• Avoid spending money on Shabbat
• Designate Friday night (or Saturday some time) as family time
• Come to Temple for services
• Set aside a regular time on Saturday for a walk, or to read a Jewish book
• Take a nap on Saturday afternoon (rabbi’s personal recommendation)
• Make the four-minute havdalah ritual marking the end of Shabbat a regular habit on Saturday night
• Regular Friday and Saturday gatherings for prayer and study
• Spectacular oneg Shabbats (festive community meal after services)
• Tot Shabbat once a month
• Weekly afternoon Shabbat with preschoolers
• Monthly Saturday Morning Live breakfast and speaker program
The Jewish People
The Jews are a family. All of us (including converts) are descended from the first parents Abraham and Sarah. And while we acknowledge our kinship with the entire human race, we maintain our identity as an old tribe, a noisy, argumentative, at times dysfunctional, at times remarkable family: the Children of Israel, the Jewish People…
Within the circle of the Jewish people we each make our own intensely personal decisions about Jewish identity. We explore our relationship to the miraculous and complex Jewish society being built in Israel, our ancient homeland, and also seek a meaningful response to the Holocaust and other outbreaks of violence against Jews throughout history. Each of us attempts to piece together an identity that simultaneously honors our Jewish heritage and affirms our inter-connectedness with our non-Jewish friends and neighbors.
• Keep The Big Book of Jewish Humor in your bathroom, rent and watch
Schindler’s List, or listen to Jewish music
• Travel to Israel
• Avoid eating pork or shellfish
• Learn some conversational Hebrew
• Wear a chai (the Hebrew letter that symbolizes life) necklace
• Send your child to Jewish summer camp
• Make a hefty donation to CBB, SB Jewish Federation, Hadassah, Hillel or another worthy Jewish organization
• Put a mezuzah on your doorframe.
• Sing songs from Fiddler on the Roof in the shower