Breast-cancer survivor finds power in Purim, prayer

"There is a God," insists Andrea Cohen-Kiener, a 47-year-old rabbi from Connecticut.

So how does she know for sure? Well, on one Purim night at a Chabad celebration, "I drank so much, I circle-danced all night and I didn't throw up.

"That is a sign," said the teacher of Jewish prayer, Kabbalah and Jewish meditation, "that there is a God."

In all seriousness, Purim has always been a night of deeper understanding for Cohen-Kiener, who will be in the Bay Area next weekend to discuss her prayerful perspective on Judaism at three events.

On a Purim eve five years ago, 10 days after a mastectomy, the rabbi learned "an important lesson," the true meaning of ad d'lo yada, or the point of not knowing.

After her breast cancer diagnosis, Cohen-Kiener had been very hungry for information, like "How long will I live?" and "How could this happen?"

"I had questions on every level," she said. "I didn't know why God had brought me down this path."

But at that year's Chabad celebration, the mother of four — dressed as a patient in pajamas and a housecoat while the rest of her family wore hospital scrubs — came to a realization: "I don't know the answer to any of these questions. Stuff happens. Let's dance!

"It was a decision to celebrate without any assurances, without any knowing. It was a decision to just be happy."

And although she still doesn't know why "God brought me down this path," she said she's glad that this was the path chosen.

"Some people struggling with an illness lose faith in God," she said. "I feel closer."

Interestingly, during the initial stages of her illness, the prayer educator was actually reluctant to pray. She soon overcame this resistance and her prayers felt as nourishing "as the lasagnas that people we're dropping off."

While Cohen-Kiener's "brush with mortality" may have added a new dimension to her spiritual practice, it certainly wasn't the beginning of it.

She first discovered the spiritual nature of Judaism as a rebellious teenager who had run away from home and was working in a vegetarian restaurant in Minneapolis.

Describing her childhood, she said she struggled with "poor role-modeling around Judaism" and a "prejudiced, very arrogant view of what it meant to be a Jew."

"No one in my family really took it very seriously," she remembered. "There was no sense of interiorness when it came to our Jewishness."

Out on her own, she discovered something quite different.

"I met people deeply connected to Judaism who were into the sacred earth and weren't prejudiced towards other groups," she said. "I came home and began to embrace my tradition. I have been doing it ever since."

Cohen-Kiener went on to earn degrees in Hebrew literature, secondary education and pastoral counseling. Now the rabbi of Congregation Pnai Or in central Connecticut, she was ordained in July by the Alliance for Jewish Renewal. She also frequently serves as a guest rabbi at congregations and retreat centers throughout the United States.

She co-authored the book "To All Who Call: A Manual for Enhancing Prayer Instruction" and translated the Chassidic work "Conscious Community: A Guide to Inner Work," by Rebbe Kalanymous Kalman Shapira.

Additionally, Cohen-Kiener serves as the director of an interfaith forum, the Children of Abraham Educational Project, and as a speaker for the Coalition on Environment and Jewish Life.

Although she doesn't want to be defined by her cancer, she admitted she cannot discount it from her definition. Like her yearly Purim lessons, she would not ever forget the deeper meaning obtained from surviving cancer: "to live and share each day with a sense of purpose."

"When I was diagnosed I did feel the normal type of sadness that I may not make it to this bar mitzvah or that wedding," she said, "but I also felt sad because I hadn't completed what I'd come here to do. This pushed me not to be modest or shy out of fear. It pushed me not to wait for the wrong reasons.

"The various projects I'm working on — such as achieving an interfaith and political dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians — might not be completed in my lifetime, but at least now I'm clearer about doing my part."