At 36, Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove is one of the youngest people to be named senior rabbi at the Park Avenue Synagogue, the largest Conservative Jewish synagogue in New York. Now, several months into his new job, he just needs to catch his breath.
“It’s been overwhelming,” Cosgrove said. “To be a rabbi of a 1,500 family congregation is nonstop.”
But the salt-and-pepper haired, blue-eyed rabbi isn’t there just to get by; he wants to help bring modern ideals into the synagogue by integrating today’s Conservative Jew with the Jew of yesterday. His ideas to help modernize the synagogue
include integrating music in to the sermon, having a hands-on approach to teaching classes to both young and old and making the traditionally straightforward services more lively.
“I think that if I created a service that merely reflected the Jews of my grandparents’ generation, then I wouldn’t be doing my job as a rabbi,” he said.
While plenty of grandparents attend services, the synagogue also attracts many single households, empty nesters and young families, like Cosgrove’s. He lives on the Upper West Side with his wife and four children, ages 3 to 8, and while he said he is done adding to his household, his work building the congregation has just begun.
“Just yesterday, four new members of Park Avenue were born,” Cosgrove said, with a smile during a recent interview in his tidy book-lined office overlooking Madison Avenue.
Births obviously help the congregation grow, but one of the rabbi’s main goals is to bring adults who have strayed from weekly practice back to the synagogue to help them rediscover their Jewish identity.
“I really want them to feel like they can reconnect with the synagogue they grew up in, but as adults on their own terms,” Cosgrove said. “Not just because it’s where their parents sent them to religious school as children.”
Behind Cosgrove’s desk is a table laden with family photos and a wall displaying the many degrees of a man who originally hadn’t planned on becoming a rabbi. Leaving his birth home in Los Angeles, Calif., Cosgrove attended the University of Michigan where he wanted to be a lawyer. At school, his Hillel director, Michael Brooks, influenced him to look more closely at Scripture and understand what it meant to be a Jew.
“He made me think very seriously about a life as a Jewish communal professional,” Cosgrove said. “It was the first time I reconnected since my bar mitzvah with the Jewish learning.”
After college, while he worked in Israel with the volunteer program OTZMA, Cosgrove applied to the University of Judaism, now the American Jewish University, in Los Angeles.
From there, he moved his studies to the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem for a year before ending up at the Jewish Theological Seminary on the Upper West Side. Cosgrove studied there for his final terms of rabbinical school. He spent the following decade in Chicago studying for a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Up until he was tapped as senior rabbi at Park Avenue Synagogue, Cosgrove was Rabbi of Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago.
Cosgrove started his job at Park Avenue Synagogue last July, when Rabbi David Lincoln retired after 21 years of leading the congregation. Now, as this spirited rabbi embraces modern ideals, he wants to literally rewrite the 50-year-old book on the ideology of Conservative Judaism by Mordecai Waxman. But, he plans to do it by sticking to the basic principles and beliefs of traditional Judaism.
“The responsibility of religious leadership is to take the eternal values of the Jewish people and communicate them in a way that speaks to the Jew in the pew—the Jew of 2009,” he said. “It’s the challenge of being anchored in the past but always leaning toward the future.”
So far, Cosgrove’s practices have been well received. Synagogue Cantor Nancy Abramson said that while parishioners initially showed a little apprehension about the new rabbi’s youth and experience, she now believes the congregation has fully embraced its leader.
“He is still pretty new and there is a lot of good will,” she said. “Anyone that meets him comes away with a good feeling.”
In a congregation where Jewish liturgical music has played a big part since the early 1900s, one of Cosgrove’s plans at Park Avenue Synagogue is greater integration of those musical traditions with the sermon by basing it on sacred Jewish text. He hopes one day to have a service that uplifts the parishioner and brings out the musical side of the Shabbat celebration to its fullest.
“He is asking for a lot of change,” Abramson said. “But he is really moving us toward the 21st century.”
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