Beth El’s new rabbi took the road less traveled

November 4, 2021

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In sports terms, one might call Ron Koas a rookie. In rabbinic circles, the 60-year-old is just a late bloomer. He came to Congregation Beth El in July as his first senior pulpit.

Raised as a secular Jew in Israel, his roundabout path to the rabbinate included IDF officer; drama school dropout; Camp Ramah Canada counselor; outreach ambassador in Australia; Jewish educator on Long Island; education director at Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan; and associate rabbi in Marlboro, New Jersey.

In replacing interim Rabbi Murray Ezring, Rabbi Koas ended Beth El’s nearly two-year search that eventually went outside the Rabbinical Assembly.

Koas cites poet Robert Frost to describe the path that led him to Beth El:

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.”

There was hardly a time in his post-army life when Koas wasn’t both studying to be and working as a teacher. He also led trips both within and to Israel, along with trips to the March of the Living in Poland. During a second stint at Camp Ramah Canada, he met his wife-to-be Miriam, the daughter of a Conservative rabbi.

“I was inspired by the kids at Ramah,” he says. “I felt I wanted to do something to connect with Judaism.”

The couple, married in 1988, lived in Israel where Koas got his master’s at Hebrew University, taught high school, and became coordinator of a USY-like youth group. Two sons, Daniel and Yair, were born in Israel. Then in 1999, a Jewish agency asked the family to do a three-year stint in a progressive Zionist program in Melbourne, Australia. “Everything was paid for; I was living a dream,” he says.

But Miriam grew homesick. She wanted to return to Great Neck, N.Y. to be near her parents. Meanwhile, his youngest child, daughter Talia, was born in the United States.

Koas found a job as an educator on Long Island, then got the job as education director at Park Avenue.

“I call it my alma mater,” he says. “I got to learn from the best rabbis and cantors in the best synagogue in the country.”

There, he was ultimately encouraged to become a rabbi—and began his education at The Rabbinical Academy in Woodmere, N.Y.—both virtual and in-person. Four years later in 2013, upon his ordination, he became associate rabbi of Marlboro Jewish Center.

Another eight years would pass before “I decided I wanted to be a senior rabbi.”

But his marriage was growing apart. It was dissolved in 2015. He spoke of his anguish during a Rosh Hashanah sermon in 2018.

“After the divorce, I got the quiet time I needed. There was a sense of relief, but at the same time, it was difficult for me. All my life I was a family man, taking care of my family and now what? It makes me very sad to know that my daughter Talia will not have the same family experiences as my sons Daniel and Yair.”

He does find time to visit his daughter, now 15, back in New York.

His sermon style is Torah-based, but often includes a humorous story.

“I rehearse at home, but I speak from the heart, and I’m not tied to the written word. Sometimes it becomes quite different on the pulpit.”

He seeks to bring a progressive approach to Beth El—including instrumentation on Shabbat, casual attire, inclusivity, and diversity.

“I want all Jewish people to feel comfortable—gay, straight, haven’t decided. We can be inclusive without compromising the tradition.… If we don’t do certain things, others will.”

Already, he has met more than 200 Beth El families at Shabbat lunches and dinners. First and foremost, Rabbi Koas has quickly become a salesman for the shul.

“I really want to establish Beth El as the leading congregation in the Tidewater area. I want it to be the vibrant community that all unaffiliated Jews will join.… I can bring my heart and soul to it, but I can’t do it alone. You need great staff and great lay leadership.

“I didn’t come here to be in a mediocre congregation; I want it to be the Park Avenue of Tidewater, and I’ll do everything possible to make it happen.”

Not bad for a rookie.

-Mark Kozak

Letter to the Editor