We are excited to welcome Kol Ami as PCI’s newest member institution!
On July 13, 2023, we interviewed Rabbi Malcolm Cohen and Dr. Elaine Jones to learn more about Kol Ami and social justice according to the Jewish tradition. The following is a summary of our conversation.
Introducing Rabbi Malcolm Cohen
Rabbi Malcolm Cohen grew up in the United Kingdom and served as rabbi at West London Synagogue and Temple Sinai in Las Vegas, Nevada before becoming one of Kol Ami’s first rabbis on March 10, 2023. Rabbi Cohen is passionate about social activism.
As a teenager, he was involved in the Reform Zionist Youth movement, where he helped convince rabbis in London to officiate same-gender commitment ceremonies. While rabbi at Temple Sinai in Las Vegas, he served as a leader in Nevadans for the Common Good, a fellow member of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF). Issues included anti-human trafficking, Meals-on-Wheels, funding for public education, and healthcare for the vulnerable elderly.
Introducing Dr. Elaine Jones
Dr. Elaine Jones comes to Kol Ami from Congregation Or Chadash, where she served as president and chaired the Social Justice Committee. When Kol Ami was formed, she became co-president of the congregation. Elaine is retired from the University of Arizona College of Nursing and now teaches Psychology at Pima College.
History of Kol Ami
Kol Ami was formed from two synagogues: Congregation Or Chadash and Temple Emanu-El. The process of forming Kol Ami began in Fall 2018 after it became clear that it would be mutually beneficial to do so. Since Temple Emanu-El building had a greater capacity than the Or Chadash campus, the two congregations decided to establish Kol Ami in Temple Emanu-El’s building. However, Or Chadash and Temple Emanu-El did not merge into one synagogue, but were dissolved over a 3-year period and fully replaced by Kol Ami. Today, Kol Ami is a vibrant community that fosters worship, religious education, youth leadership, and justice.
Social Justice in the Jewish Tradition
According to Rabbi Cohen, there is no linguistic corollary for the phrase social justice in Hebrew. Tzedek, the word for “justice” is not usually associated with social justice. However, in Scripture, the Hebrew prophets constantly rebuked the elites of their day for having mistreated widows, orphans, and foreigners. They warned that G-d cared more about righteous living than well-executed sacrifices.
Another influence on Reform Judaism was the civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s. The Jews looked back to the Hebrew prophets and rediscovered their message of justice to address contemporary social issues. To this day, social justice remains a significant legacy of the Reform Jewish tradition. The Religious Action Center (RAC) in Washington D.C. functions as “the organizing arm of the Reform movement.” Indeed, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were drafted in the offices of the RAC.
Social Justice at Kol Ami
At Kol Ami, there is a Social Action/Social Justice committee that works to address homelessness. Members make sandwiches for the Primavera Men’s Shelter, volunteer at Sister José Women’s Shelter, and donate to Casa Alitas, which serves migrants in Tucson. Kol Ami has sponsored a few refugee families.
Kol Ami is also involved in interfaith relations. In collaboration with Franciscan Brother David, Kol Ami has made 120 humanitarian packs with drinks and snacks.
Individual congregants work to address issues ranging from racial justice to LGBTQ+ rights.
Why Kol Ami Decided to Join PCI
Rabbi Cohen insists that the reason for Kol Ami’s membership in PCI is “obvious.”
“If we teach more people about organizing beyond the congregation, that will also help inside the congregation. The eternal issue that religious institutions face is finding new, dynamic leadership. People who are trained through the IAF have the potential to be fantastic leaders.”
Recently, Rabbi Cohen took a group of high schoolers to Washington D.C. to meet with elected representatives and make legislative asks to each of the offices on Capitol Hill. Kol Ami would like to explore the possibility of a youth training arm for PCI.
We would like to thank Rabbi Malcolm Cohen and Dr. Elaine Jones for their insightful reflections on social justice in the Jewish tradition and at Kol Ami.