COHN, ELKAN


COHN, ELKAN
COHN, ELKAN (1820–1889), U.S. Reform rabbi. Cohn was born in Kosten, province of Posen, then in the Kingdom of Prussia. He was an orphan whose grandparents sent him to Braunschweig to be tutored in Talmud by the traditional Rabbi Isaac Eger. But there Cohn also fell under the influence of historian levi herzfeld , one of the earliest Jewish practitioners of the critical method and later a prime mover in the German Reform movement. Cohn spent the decade of the 1840s in Berlin, where he earned a doctorate in classics at the university, and, studying under leopold zunz among others, his rabbinical degree. He chafed under the authoritarian rule of the Hohenzollern king and supported the revolution of 1848. In 1850 Cohn was appointed rabbi of Brandenburg. Four years later he immigrated to America and succeeded isaac mayer wise as rabbi of Congregation Anshe Emeth in Albany, New York. Cohn took part in the Cleveland Rabbinical Conference of 1855 and was elected vice president. In 1860, accepting the challenges of a frontier pulpit, he became the rabbi of Congregation Emanu-El of San Francisco, where he remained almost three decades until his death. Like his friend Thomas Starr King, the famed Unitarian minister who arrived in San Francisco the same year, Cohn preached ethical universalism, presided over the building of a magnificent house of worship, and helped "save California for the Union" during the Civil War. After Lincoln's assassination, Cohn was one of 38 distinguished citizens of the West who served as pallbearers in a large procession of mourners in San Francisco. The tribute that he delivered in his synagogue to the fallen president was a passionate oration by a man otherwise not known as a gifted speaker or powerful writer. Congregation Emanu-El, comprised largely of Bavarians, followed the German Orthodox ritual, but Cohn, in the face of opposition from within and without the synagogue,   initiated Reform practices. His introduction of a new prayer book led to the secession of 55 families in 1864 who formed their own congregation, Ohabai Shalome, which for many decades continued to adhere to the Minhag Ashkenaz that Cohn had compromised. In the summer of 1877, shortly after Isaac Mayer Wise's eventful visit to San Francisco, Emanu-El joined the fledgling Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the first synagogue in the American West to do so. Toward the end of Cohn's tenure, he inaugurated radical reforms such as banning skullcaps, moving Friday evening services to Sunday morning, and replacing the shofar on High Holidays with a cornet or trombone. Although Sunday morning services lasted only a year, the Classical Reform orientation of the synagogue was firmly established and would become even more pronounced during the rabbinate of Cohn's protégé, jacob voorsanger (1889–1908). Cohn's greatest achievement was the erection in 1866 of the imposing Sutter Street Temple, modeled after the Gothic cathedrals of medieval England. With its two tapered towers, each topped with a bronze-plated dome, it was a prominent feature of the San Francisco skyline until its destruction in the earthquake and fire of 1906. The grand temple reflected the strength and style Elkan Cohn had brought to Reform Judaism in Northern California. -BIBLIOGRAPHY: F. Rosenbaum, Visions of Reform: Congregation Emanu-El and the Jews of San Francisco, 1849–1999 (2000); J. Voorsanger, Chronicles of Emanu-El (1900). (Fred S. Rosenbaum (2nd ed.)

Encyclopedia Judaica. 1971.