Rabbi Yonatan and Freyda Cohen
Rabbi Yonatan and Freyda Cohen

It’s official: This Berkeley rabbi’s home is a ‘place of belonging’

Rabbi Yonatan Cohen of Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley had never heard of artist Christine Wong Yap’s Bay Area art project. He certainly didn’t know he was part of it.

“I only found out when the artist emailed me,” he said. “I had no idea.”

Wong Yap was emailing to let Cohen know that his home had been nominated as a “place of belonging,” part of a project Wong Yap is doing as the inaugural artist-in-residence at UC Berkeley’s Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society. The project invites members of the public to nominate places where they feel connected and at home.

For Angela Jernigan, Cohen’s former neighbor, that place of belonging is the Cohen house.

“I had been a next-door neighbor of the Cohens’ for a number of years,” she said. “And I started thinking about all the different times they’ve invited me to the Passover table or their sukkah.”

Jernigan said that she found the Cohens’ inclusivity and welcoming nature very moving, although in a way unexpected: Jernigan is a United Church of Christ ordained minister, and her husband, Niels Teunis, is also being ordained in the same Protestant denomination, while Cohen is a Modern Orthodox rabbi.

The neighbors became so close that Cohen officiated at their wedding. “We created a unique civil ceremony that was loving and spiritual, and did not use Jewish or Christian tropes,” Cohen told J.

Jernigan said she respected the cultivation of friends and family that she saw in her Jewish neighbors.

“I think it’s a community that practices the ongoing embrace of the stranger,” she said.

Christine Wong Yap's certificate on the wall at Rabbi Yonatan Cohen's house (Photo/Christine Wong Yap)
Christine Wong Yap’s certificate on the wall at Rabbi Yonatan Cohen’s house (Photo/Christine Wong Yap)

Jernigan heard about the project through the Haas Institute newsletter, prompting her to think about where she felt “belonging” in her home city of Berkeley. She submitted her entry to Wong Yap and then the artist reached out to Cohen.

“My first reaction was that I was truly moved,” Cohen said.

The Cohens’ house is just one of the many places that have been nominated through the project, and Wong Yap said each one was special in its own way.

“I really like Angela’s story because just the way it’s interfaith,” Wong Yap said.

Wong Yap’s “Belonging Project” is part of her five-month residency at the Haas Institute, a multidisciplinary research body that looks at ways to transform society to make it more just and equitable. The project will culminate in a book and installation of photos, including the one of Cohen’s home, that will launch at the Haas Institute Othering and Belonging conference April 8-10.

The places of belonging Wong Yap is chronicling are places where people feel connected, safe and rooted. They’ve been as diverse as a store selling egg-custard tarts in Oakland to a well-known alley of murals in San Francisco’s Mission District.

Wong Yap, now based in New York City, grew up in Santa Rosa and Daly City. She has a BA and MFA from the California College for the Arts and is a former Oakland resident.

The nominations for places of belonging were collected through workshops and outreach to a wide range of organizations — from Chinese dissidents in Fremont to kids in juvenile hall in San Mateo. Some, like Jernigan’s nomination, came through the project’s website.

Wong Yap commemorates the places with letter-pressed certificates, or, if the places aren’t fixed or tangible, with screen-printed bandanas, all featuring hand-drawn quotes from the nominator’s application. She also takes photos, if people are willing to have the certificates publicly displayed — as Cohen was happy to do. It’s actually hanging on his dining room wall, where all who come to Shabbat dinner can see it. Cohen said his son has taken to explaining the certificate to guests.

“I showed a little bit of nachas [joy], seeing his pride,” Cohen said fondly.

Cohen said that his relationships with neighbors have always been warm — and reciprocal. The minister couple (who have since moved) opened up their front yard, complete with tree house, to kids from the synagogue, and became close with the Cohen children, as well.

“They’ve demonstrated this incredible hospitality,” Cohen said.

Still, Cohen said he was surprised to get the email from Wong Yap. Not only did it make him feel “humbled and taken aback,” but it also made him think. He said he hadn’t quite articulated to himself that the simple act of sharing a meal could create something so potent, something so “radical and bold,” as he put it.

“It’s incredible to me,” he said. “That’s an amazing insight that only an outsider to our house would see.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.