Rabbi Alan Cook came with his family to Champaign-Urbana in August to take on the job of rabbi at Sinai Temple, the community’s Jewish congregation. Rabbi Alan (as he prefers to be called) came to Sinai Temple after four years as an assistant rabbi in Denver, and six years as an associate rabbi in Seattle. At Sinai Temple, he is the sole full-time rabbi, and has worked to strengthen the Temple community, in addition to pursuing social action opportunities, interfaith cooperation, and community engagement. He and his wife, Rabbi Jody Cook, reside in southwest Champaign, with their two children, ages 8 and 5.
See why we think Rabbi Alan Cook is a Chambana Dad to Know.
Q: In a few days you will be shaving your head with many other rabbis from across the U.S. Why are you doing this?
My colleagues and I first connected to this project because of two Chicago-area rabbis, Rabbis Phyllis and Michael Sommer. Their son, Samuel, was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia in 2012, and died in December of 2013. Phyllis and Michael were rabbinic school classmates of mine and have remained dear friends. As they chronicled Sam’s battle with leukemia (http://supermansamuel.blogspot.com), many of us were moved by their candor in exploring what this journey meant for them. In October of last year, Phyllis, along with another friend and colleague, Rabbi Rebecca Shorr, sought a way to show solidarity with Sam and with all of the other young cancer patients who are diagnosed each year. They decided to partner with St. Baldrick’s, a charitable organization that encourages people to shave their heads to show solidarity for (and raise awareness of) those battling pediatric cancer.
Rebecca and Phyllis set out to see if they could find 36 rabbis (a multiple of 18, which is a number that signifies “life” in Jewish tradition) who would be willing to participate. In the end, more than ninety individuals will be participating in fundraising for this effort, and nearly seventy of those people- both men and women- will be shaving our heads. Sadly, what was conceived as an event in honor of Sam has become one in his memory. But we do this not only for Sam, but for the countless children each year who face such diagnoses. An average of seven children daily are diagnosed in the U.S. Yet the pharmaceutical industry continues to treat childhood cancer as a “rare” illness and finds it unprofitable to invest in research for age-appropriate treatment and cures. All money that we raise through St. Baldrick’s will be directed toward private research aimed specifically at developing treatment protocols for pediatric cancer.
Q: How have you raised money for this effort, and how can others get involved?
My personal fundraising page is at: http://www.stbaldricks.org/participants/mypage/660612/2014 . I’m honored that many of my friends from around the country have felt inspired to contribute, but additional contributions are of course welcomed. We also did a “pie toss” event at the Temple’s recent Purim carnival that raised over $200 for the cause. The shave itself takes place on the evening of April 1 during a national rabbinic convention. I’m told that we’ll be livestreaming the event starting around 9:45 p.m.
Q: Welcome to Champaign-Urbana. You’ve been here for about eight months, what do you like most about C-U thus far?
We have found the people in C-U, and at the congregation to be very welcoming. I did my schooling in the Midwest, and my wife is from Milwaukee, so we’ve enjoyed this as a sort of “homecoming” (although the winter did grate on us a bit). We’ve really loved being in a college town: my son is looking forward to attending more Illini football and basketball games, and my daughter likes going to the gymnastic meets and diving events.
Q: Why did you want to be the rabbi of Sinai Temple here, and how have you made the transition between working with a small Jewish community in central Illinois versus the large urban community you left in Seattle?
The position at Sinai Temple was a great opportunity; after 10 years of serving as an assistant and associate, I now have the chance to work with the congregation in forging my own vision. Of course, as you note, the scale is different, but in some ways that is a blessing. In a larger congregation, it is sometimes easy to be anonymous; in a smaller congregation such as Sinai Temple, we rely on the input and participation of all to make things function. In my short time here so far, I’ve had a wonderful chance to interact with so many different people who are willing to give of their time, energy, and enthusiasm to make sure our congregation continues to thrive.
Q: What do you hope to accomplish here in your rabbinate?
I hope that we’ll continue to build a vibrant Jewish community, that we’ll figure out “best practices” for a community our size and become an exemplar that other communities of a similar size can seek to emulate. I’m excited for the opportunity for our congregation to collaborate with other Jewish institutions in town such as Chabad, CUJF (the Champaign-Urbana Jewish Federation) and the Hillel organization at UIUC. I think there are also opportunities for broader community engagement with people of other faiths, with political leaders, and with leadership from the university.
Q: You are big fan of Sesame Street and the Muppets, and often bring Cookie monster to services to tell stories. What is it about these characters that help you translate lessons to kids?
Classically, the Muppets succeeded because their humor functioned on both an adult and a kid level. I think that in order for me to inspire people to become engaged (and remain engaged) in the synagogue, I’ve got to be able to interact with people of all ages. Hopefully, Cookie Monster and my other puppets show the children that I can understand where they are coming from, and that I am a safe person to whom they can talk. Without the puppets, I’m just another grown-up in a suit. Ideally, with the puppets, we can “click” on their level
Q: When you are not being rabbi, what do you and your family like to do?
We have enjoyed getting acclimated to our community. As I mentioned, we love finding things on campus or around town that we can do as a family. We’ve also taken the train up to Chicago a few times, and explored surrounding communities such as Springfield, Bloomington, and Arthur. And a little further afield, we absolutely love Disney World!
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