I am honored to serve as rabbi of Temple Beth El of Anniston. Alabama has always had a soft spot in my heart. Though I grew up in Dallas, Texas, and graduated from the University of Texas at Austin, I spent more than a year as a student at Bama, so it’s fair to say I’m a Southerner.

I hold a masters of Hebrew letters, a masters of Jewish education, and was ordained as a rabbi by the Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion in 2000. 

My first few months as rabbi of Temple Beth El have been exciting, pride-filled and wonderful. I have enjoyed leading Anniston’s Jewish community in Shabbat services and the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Every time I have had the opportunity to stand in front of the holy ark as I lead congregants in worship, I am awestruck by the beauty, history and the careful preservation of the temple’s sanctuary.

I can feel the lasting legacy of past temple members from 1888 to now, who, by their presence, commitment and financial support, have lovingly contributed to the temple’s history, present and future.

I am grateful to the rabbis before me who have led the congregation with care, warmth and intellect. I am delighted that the congregants of Temple Beth El have welcomed me with open arms, hearts and minds.

This past Saturday morning, Jews around the world read from the Torah about Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality to three divine strangers. This was the same Saturday morning that hate, ignorance and fear led to 11 good, kind people being gunned down in their spiritual home, Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

Unknowingly, my sermon posited that Abraham displayed empathy as well as hospitality. After having made his own desert journey, leaving everything he has ever known behind him, Abraham anticipates and truly understands his visitors’ needs. He knows what they long for both physically and spiritually.

Undoubtedly, the most important trope of the Jewish people that hearkens back to the time of the Bible’s Israelites is that of “Remember you were once strangers in a strange land.” This teaching and this value are a part of the Jewish people’s DNA.

It truly reflects our teaching in Leviticus 19:18, which commands us to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” It is not optional, not for the Jewish people, nor for any other religious or cultural group.

Treating people with the same dignity that you expect from others is a right of every human being. We need only to reflect on what that means when we approach individuals and communities who are disadvantaged or disenfranchised.

Empathy and compassion are the human qualities that separate us from other creatures. Greater understanding and kindness for all ought to be how we respond to unnecessary tragedies like Pittsburgh.

I look forward to carrying this teaching into action with the community I serve. I look forward to connecting to other communities who are willing to join us in the sacred work of building a better, kinder and more tender world.

Lauren Cohn is rabbi at Temple Beth El in Anniston.