Cohen takes helm of Slifka

Rabbi Leah Cohen has assumed leadership of the Slifka Center.
Rabbi Leah Cohen has assumed leadership of the Slifka Center. Photo by Jennifer Lu.

Rabbi Leah Cohen has assumed leadership of the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale.

As Slifka’s new executive director and senior chaplain, Cohen succeeds Rabbi James Ponet ’68, who has served as a chaplain at Yale since 1981. Though Cohen, who is Slifka’s first female director, began her duties in July, Ponet said the center will remain in a leadership transition stage until the summer of 2015.

Slifka’s Board of Trustees selected Cohen from among five finalists after taking into consideration a series of written applications, virtual and in-person interviews and writing samples, as well as input from student and community leaders.

“[Cohen can] combine both [religious and secular] worlds with her rabbinic experience and her business experience,” Ponet said.

As executive director, Cohen said she will spend her first six months learning more about how the Jewish community works at Yale.

“[I want] to see where there are areas of strength to lift up and ask what are some things that we are not doing that we could be doing or doing better,” Cohen said.

Cohen said her plans for the center include fundraising, increasing the number of programs offered and “promoting experiences outside [Slifka’s] four walls.” She cited possible initiatives such as hosting seders in college dining halls, building a sukkah — a tent-like structure — at a residential college, holding Master’s Teas and planning study breaks featuring latkes. Cohen was initially attracted to the position because she saw it as an opportunity to influence Jewish life at Yale, which she said has reached a pivotal moment.

Ponet said he is stepping aside after 32 years of involvement with Jewish life at Yale. He added that he is looking forward to spending more time in the library catching up on writing and reading. He said his proudest achievement has been overseeing the creation of one of the “most beautiful, effective and well-endowed buildings on campus to support Jewish life.”

Ponet said he fully supports Cohen’s vision for Slifka and commended her for her combination of business skills and religious commitment.

Cohen previously worked in both the US and international healthcare field, and was later ordained at Hebrew Union College in 2000.

Of the five students interviewed, all said that the Slifka Center is largely successful in engaging with students and hosting events. Jessica Saldinger ’15, co-president of the Young Israel House at Yale, said Ponet has been a very visible presence in the center.

“He spends a lot of time talking to students and acting as a spiritual and life mentor,” she said.

Saldinger said that Rabbi Cohen is “a wonderful person” and added that she expects Cohen will be a good leader for the community.

Ezriel Gelbfish ’16 said he hopes that Cohen will continue to host lectures at Slifka similar to one he attended recently, which was given by Dr. Gabriel Citron, a postdoctoral fellow in Judaic Studies at Yale.

The Slifka Center formally opened in 1995, bringing together Hillel, the Kosher Kitchen, and Young Israel House.

The News previously reported on staff transitions at the Slifka Center in January and October.

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