Nether Rabbi Amy Wallk nor Rabbi Mark Cohn had been looking for a relationship when they first met at the Shalom Hartman Institute in 2017. (Photo/JTA-Tamar Katz)
Nether Rabbi Amy Wallk nor Rabbi Mark Cohn had been looking for a relationship when they first met at the Shalom Hartman Institute in 2017. (Photo/JTA-Tamar Katz)

Two rabbis, from two different denominations, get a second chance at love

In the beginning, the relationship was secret. Neither Rabbi Amy Wallk nor Rabbi Mark Cohn wanted to worry their respective congregations, especially when they still had so much to consider. It was like Wallk had joined the CIA, her sister joked.

But eventually they realized this relationship was the real deal, and the time had come to make some serious choices. Wallk served Temple Beth El in Springfield, Massachusetts, and Cohn was at Temple Emanuel in Winston-Salem, North Carolina (though he was raised in Moraga and attended Temple Isaiah in Lafayette).

One big decision they faced was that one of them (or both) would have to relocate if they wanted to be together. It wasn’t the sort of decision either expected to be making at that stage in their lives.

After her divorce, Wallk gave little thought to new relationships. She was far more cognizant of the personal example she wanted to set for her three children. “I felt it was better to be lonely and divorced than lonely and married,” she said. “I felt I could be a better model for my children being alone than in a bad marriage.”

With this in mind, and newly single in her mid-50s, she wanted to be more intentional about putting herself first. In this case, that meant nurturing her religious and spiritual life — which is why she ended up in Jerusalem at the Shalom Hartman Institute’s three-week Rabbinic Leadership Initiative seminar in the summer of 2017.

Also present among the 125 or so rabbis was Cohn, though he was there for only five days. He was also newly divorced.

The two met one day over lunch after they both happened to sit at the same table.

Though Wallk is a Conservative rabbi and Cohn is Reform, they quickly realized they had much in common. Both loved prayer, and each had worked on revamping their movements’ new prayerbooks. They were both parents, both just out of decades-long marriages, and each had lost a parent in recent years. They spoke once more before Cohn departed, and it was clear they had a connection. But neither had been looking for a relationship, and the 700 miles between them in the U.S. made it impractical to consider pursuing one. They exchanged a few emails in the weeks that followed, but that was it.

Then, six weeks later, they met again at an AIPAC rabbinic seminar in Washington, D.C. This time they realized their desire to get to know each other better might outweigh the impracticalities of living so far apart.

They began to visit one another. Their communication increased. At one point, they shared the eulogies they had each written about the parent they had recently lost.

“You could see the distance between us as an obstacle or a benefit,” Wallk said. “And I chose to go the benefit route. When I was at home, my children got my undivided attention.”

But still, they knew they had to be cautious. Dating as a rabbi is always tricky, and that doubles when both people in the relationship have their own congregations. Some members of Wallk’s congregation had voiced their fears of losing her after the divorce, and neither of them wanted to raise concerns in their synagogues until they knew the relationship was serious.

Wallk and Cohn were married on Jan. 2, 2022 at San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel, in front of 17 guests. (Photo/JTA-Tamar Katz)
Wallk and Cohn were married on Jan. 2, 2022 at San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel, in front of 17 guests. (Photo/JTA-Tamar Katz)

“We had a lot of things on the stovetop,” Cohn said. “Once we knew this was something, we needed to think about the kids, our careers and what we wanted.”

Whatever happened, they agreed they couldn’t both be congregational rabbis, or they would rarely see each other.

“The full-time pulpit rabbinate is, necessarily so, demanding and needs full attention. If we are both doing that work [at] different [synagogues], we would be limited in time,” Cohn said, adding this would be particularly true if one of them was starting a new position. “We were concerned we wouldn’t have the kind of time together we desire.”

Of the two, Cohn had been at his congregation longer, 21 years to her 14. He said he felt he had accomplished much of what he set out to do at Emanuel: He had officiated more than 200 b’nai mitzvahs, forged relationships with local clergy members and overseen many social-justice projects.

“I was the one who was ready to move,” Cohn said. “I’ve got a remarkable bride who I happen to really respect as a rabbi. I’ve been in her synagogue, and I love being a Jew in the pew there.”

Once that was settled, the pieces quickly fell into place: Wallk and Cohn were married on Jan. 2, 2022 at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco in front of 17 guests.

The location was an easy choice, as Cohn’s family has been in the Bay Area for generations, and it’s where his mother, Robbie Cohn, the only living parent of either of them, still lives. Additionally, multiple members of Cohn’s family have been married at the Fairmont, which used to be owned by Jewish philanthropist Ben Swig, for whom the old Jewish summer camp in Saratoga, Camp Swig, had been named (and which Cohn attended for many years).

Narrowing in on an officiant was harder. Their social circles had no shortage of rabbis, but few who knew both of them as individuals.

Ultimately, they decided on Rabbi David Ellenson, now chancellor emeritus of Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion. Wallk had met him at the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University) in Los Angeles, and Cohn took a class from him when he was an undergraduate at UCLA, and considered him a mentor ever since. Ellenson officiated from New York, projected on a big screen.

“He’s the only rabbi in the whole country that knows us each as individuals and knows our families and our stories,” Cohn said.

This month, Cohn moved to Springfield, and was replaced in Winston-Salem by Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, the rabbi who was taken hostage during Shabbat services at his synagogue in the Dallas area earlier this year.

Cohn doesn’t know what his next job will be, but he’s excited to find out. With his passion for the environment and social justice, he could see working outside of the Jewish world.

What he does know is that, for the first time, he will live in a house with a strictly kosher kitchen, although, in general, the two have pretty good overlap in religious practices. “She’s on the more liberal side of the Conservative movement and I’m on the more traditional side of Reform,” he said.

Like other mixed-movement rabbinical couples, they have learned to appreciate things about the other’s movements.

“We’re modeling a kind of Torah that isn’t modeled very often,” Wallk said, noting that women were traditionally expected to prioritize their husbands’ career over their own, and that people in general often put their careers above all else. “There are times when your career comes first, but you only get one life to live, and you have to take care of yourself. This decision of Mark, moving to be with me and finding work, is saying ‘we have to come first.’”

This article was distributed by JTA.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."


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