Remembering Rabbi Leonard Cahan

Written by Alan Fisher on . Posted in Features

Rashi and Ramban teach that a person’s rebbe is like his father (Exodus 3:2-3; Sanhedrin 19b). Many of us who grew up at Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac, Maryland, feel that we have lost our father with the passing of Rabbi Leonard Cahan on Rosh Chodesh Shevat (Jan. 17).

Rabbi Leonard Cahan, rabbi of Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac, Maryland, from 1974 until his retirement in 2001, was president of the Washington Board of Rabbis from 1990 to 1992 and chaired the Rabbinical Assembly (RA) committee that revised “Siddur Sim Shalom” for Shabbat and Yom Tov in 1998. Since his 1961 ordination, Rabbi Cahan served as a chaplain for the Navy and rabbi for congregations in Detroit, Michigan, Oakland, California, and Potomac. In these positions, he touched the lives of thousands of people.

Rabbi Cahan carefully researched texts of siddurim (prayer books) dating back many centuries to find the earliest and most accurate texts. He spent countless hours finding the most accurate English translations and then fine-tuned with care and love to make the final results accurate, understandable, and singable. Some of his carefully crafted translations fit the same melodies in both Hebrew and English. His extensive revision of “Siddur Sim Shalom” has profoundly influenced the Conservative movement.

As a rabbi during the early decades following the Holocaust, when many adult Jews ran from traditional Judaism and did not pursue a Jewish education, Rabbi Cahan always encouraged his congregants to study their heritage, learn more Torah and halacha (Jewish law), and appreciate what Judaism offers to modern Jews. Instead of a sermon on Shabbat morning, Rabbi Cahan would introduce a topic before the Torah reading, present some questions, and then lead a discussion after the fourth aliyah. The result was always a greater appreciation of the parsha and increased appreciation for mitzvot, presented in a way that would appeal to his audience of scientists, physicians, attorneys, and scholars.

Anyone interested in delving deeper could come to his office, where (before the Internet) he ran the best Judaica shop in the community — including the books he selected from top bookstores in New York and Israel on his many buying trips. For bar and bat mitzvah students, he inventoried a wide range of books appropriate to all levels, from introductory, to the Torah anthology, to Gemara (Talmud) for the most advanced students at day schools.

With his wife and eishet chayil (woman of valor), Elizabeth, Rabbi Cahan invited many single Jews and families to his home for Shabbat and Yom Tov meals to demonstrate the beauty and appeal of Jewish observance first-hand. The loving demonstration of Judaism in the home attracted many members of a younger generation to accept Judaism as a way of life. When he was rabbi at Har Shalom, his shul typically had the most Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School students of any congregation. At least six of his congregants went on to become Conservative rabbis. Many more have taken leadership positions in other venues, as synagogue presidents, leaders of Jewish organizations dedicated to making a better world, and active members of synagogues throughout the community (including numerous Orthodox synagogues).

Although deeply devoted to the Conservative movement, Rabbi Cahan’s primary focus was Klal Yisrael, the Jewish people as a whole. His attitude was that we should always increase our mitzvot, and he was confident that his congregants would always respect our Conservative background and all Jews. His approach to life was that the most basic and important teaching of Judaism is concern for others, especially those in less advantaged positions. To follow G-d’s mitzvot properly, we should be the best human beings we can.

Rabbi Cahan practiced what he taught. When he was president of the Washington Board of Rabbis (1984-86), he led a sit-in at the Russian Embassy to protest treatment of Soviet Jews, and went to jail for two weeks rather than pay a $50 fine (the rabbis were released two days early for good behavior). One long-time congregant, in her tribute to him, thanked Rabbi Cahan for showing her family “the prayer in civil disobedience, the justice in Talmud ...”

Rabbi Cahan’s kiruv (outreach) extended to closer relationships with non-Jews. For nearly 20 years, Rabbi Cahan taught a Torah study class with Pastor Jan Lookingbill of Emmanuel Lutheran Church. The ground rules for the class included two very important basic principles: No one could attempt to convert anyone to a different religion, and all statements were to include only what each religion taught without any disagreement with the views of the other religion. Rabbi Cahan and Pastor Lookingbill were enormously successful with this class and with jointly-sponsored trips to Israel and Spain (with both Jewish and Christian tour members). Pastor Lookingbill became one of Rabbi Cahan’s closest friends and spoke both at his second bar mitzvah (Nov. 25, 2017) and his funeral.

As successful as Rabbi Cahan was as a rabbi, he was a world-class rabbi emeritus. Once he retired, Rabbi Cahan sat with the congregation as just another member, gave complete support to the new rabbi, refused to perform any rabbinic function except at the request and with the endorsement of the senior rabbi, and only expressed his personal opinion on rabbinic issues privately and confidentially to the new senior rabbi. As Rabbi Adam Raskin said in his eulogy, “I never for a moment of my tenure here [at Har Shalom] felt anything less than Rabbi Cahan’s genuine affection, kindness, and support for me, for my ideas, and for my leadership.”

In the Torah, when Yaakov fled for safety with his mother’s family, it says, “Yaakov departed from Beer-Sheva and went toward Haran” (Genesis 28:10). Rashi asks why it was necessary to say both that he left Beer-Sheva and went to Haran. He responds that a righteous person’s departure from a place diminishes its glory.

By Alan Fisher

 The loss of Rabbi Leonard Cahan leaves a gap in Montgomery County and in the entire Jewish world.