At a time where many synagogues are either merging or closing for good, Jericho’s Temple Or Elohim is trending in the opposite direction and having to adapt to the increasing numbers of families getting involved in temple life. It’s a welcome problem to have, according to Cassi Kail, who was welcomed as the new rabbi as of July 1. Senior Rabbi Harvey Abramowitz will assume the role of Rabbi Emeritus as of Oct. 1, afte serving the congregation for 15 years with warmth and dedicated leadership. For Brooklyn native Kail, the chance to return to the local area after serving a 150-family synagogue in the upstate Utica area is a welcome development.
“I was the solo rabbi there for the past six years. There is not another local rabbi in the area at all, so it was all me. There’s a Conservative congregation there and they didn’t have a rabbi most of the time that I was there, so it really was a very different role. I was taking on music, education and the regular teaching and pastoral elements of being a rabbi. It was a wonderful place to be and I was excited to return to the New York area,” she explained. “I found this community [in Jericho], which, from the moment I entered it, it just really felt like a comfortable home kind of place. A place where if I was a person who wasn’t a rabbi, this would be a congregation that I’d be looking for.”
Born and raised in Sheepshead Bay, Kail grew up in a family that was culturally Jewish, “…having Rosh Hashana dinner, eating bagels, pastrami and other quintessential Jewish cuisine,” but she knew she wanted more. A favorite relative who often took her to services stoked a fervor that went beyond just wanting to eat kreplach and stuffed derma.
“My aunt would take me to temple with her when I was little, sometimes, and I just kind of fell in love with it. Being that I sing and play guitar, I think the music brought me in [as well as] the relationships, which is when I started to develop this feeling of being home,” Kail recalled. “By the time I was in seventh grade, I was begging my parents to allow me to go to religious school to become a bat mitzvah. The more I got involved with that, youth group and song leading, the more it just felt like that’s where I belonged and that’s where I felt really fulfilled. When I was looking for colleges, I already had it in the back of my mind, even before I went to undergraduate [studies], that this is what I wanted to do. At that point, I didn’t know if I wanted to be a rabbi or cantor, but I wanted to be part of a Jewish community.”
A scholar in Torah study, Kail attended University of Hartford in Connecticut before obtaining her Theological degree from Hebrew Union College and a master’s degree in Hebrew literature. During her tenure in Utica, Kail developed many innovative programs to attact congregants of all ages and to appeal to changing demographics. Through her leadership, she developed exciting programs to welcome and respond to the needs of interfaith congregants and was widely recognized for her work in rejuvenating youth outreach and education programs for young children and adolescents. She also created strong connections between the Conservative and Reform congregations in her community and stressed the importance of developing strong relationships with other religious sects, as well as political leaders in the area. Kail’s goals are no less ambitious in coming to serve her new temple that is double the size of her last synagogue.
“This community has really expanded over the past couple of years, thanks to the director of education, Deborah Tract. And also the cantor and to the rabbi, who is retiring. They brought so much to the community, but what’s happening is that we’ve had so many new families enter the religious school,” she pointed out. “What’s really important to me is that it’s not just about being in the religious school or becoming a bar or bat mitzvah. I really want to have families feel connected to the greater community. I really want to reach out and help them to find ways to bring Judaism into everyday life. I really believe that the tradition is a living and beautiful tradition and it can come into so many aspects of our life. From some of the more challenging things to some of the most rejoiceful things. One of the main priorities that I have is to really get to know everyone in the community so I can be there for them and help them to connect to one another, themselves and something larger than all of us.”
Having settled in with her husband and two young children who are 4- and 6-years-old, Kail admits that some of the challenging aspects of being a rabbit anywhere is how temple politics can often make things more difficult. But keeping an eye on shared beliefs, goals and the future, then these trivialities end up becoming diminished, particularly in light of her role as a religious leader.
“I feel like Judaism is about atunement and it’s about really connecting in a deep way. I feel like when I’m teaching or studying Torah around the table, you feel the text come to life and really connect with other people through how they see the text. That’s an aspect that I absolutely love, when leading prayer and completely being taken away by the words of traditions, the sound of the music and the cadence of the readings and poetry that’s a part of it. Leading that and being a part of that is deeply meaningful to me,” she explained.
“I’m also always really humbled by and uplifted by the ability to be there with people during some of the most intimate moments of their lives—during weddings, births, brisses, baby namings and any mitzvah. All of those things are wonderful, as well as being there for people when they’re having trouble with illness, mourning or in the process of dying or any number of things. Being able to find creative rituals in which to help them as they go through that process. That’s something that I really get a lot out of and really enjoy being there for people in that way. In the end, we’re working towards creating a community that feels like home and that brings people into tradition in a very accessible and engaging way.”