Teenage dream: At age 13, Rabbi Coran already knew she wanted to lead, serve.

The dreams of 13-year-old girls revolve around many things. Religion is probably not among the top five topics.

But Rabbi Sigma Faye Coran, now 48, started thinking about becoming a rabbi at age 13.

Today Coran is senior rabbi at Rockdale Temple, K.K. Bene Israel, in Amberley Village. She is the first female senior rabbi to serve a Cincinnati congregation.

Founded in 1824, Rockdale is the oldest Hebrew congregation west of the Allegheny Mountains. It has played an active role with Reform Judaism in America.

At Rockdale, a Reform Judaism synagogue serving 400 families, Coran said, “I don’t have any two days alike.” Her training gives her the ability to recognize when someone has an issue, when she can help with counseling or when she can refer the person to get help from someone else.

Born in St. Louis, Coran grew up in Akron, where her family became members of Temple Israel, a Reform Judaism synagogue. As transplants Coran and her family found the temple to be “the center of our life.”

She graduated from Tufts University with a B.A. in psychology and biology in 1988, and then she applied to Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion  in Cincinnati. The largest Jewish seminary in North America, it is the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism.

Coran, known as “Sissy,” entered the seminary for rabbinical studies and never turned back.

“It was a nagging thing,” she said. As part of the program, she served in small congregations and completed a thesis. She graduated in 1993.

Coran originally went through the professional job placement service of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Her husband, Matthew Kraus, encouraged her to apply for the senior rabbi position at Rockdale Temple in 2003. The search committee reviewed her application and did a site visit in February 2004 at Williams College, Williamstown, Mass., where she served as the Jewish chaplain. Coran was offered the job at Rockdale in February 2004.

On March 23, 2004, her birthday, Coran received a confirming offer, electing her senior rabbi of the congregation. She started at Rockdale on July 1, 2004.

Colleagues say she has rebuilt the staff, enhanced the religious school, engaged interns from the seminary and put the temple on stable financial ground.

Family life

Coran met her husband Matthew Kraus at summer camp when she was 11. Kraus was from Cincinnati, and he reconnected with Coran at the seminary. Kraus was ordained a rabbi in 1991 and went on to earn a doctorate in classics from the University of Michigan. At 51, he now teaches Judaic Studies at the University of Cincinnati.

The rabbi, her husband, and three of their four children on a visit to her daughter’s college. (Photo courtesy of S. Coran)

Coran was a wife and mother to her first child Jacob before she was ordained. Coran and Kraus went on to have three more children: Shirah, now at Bryn Mawr College; Micah, a third generation student at Walnut Hills High School, and Eden, at Rockwern Academy. Jacob is now a senior at Macalester College. Although the children haven’t expressed an interest yet in becoming rabbis, they are engaged in Jewish life.

“Rabbi Coran, has been, for the last seven-plus years, my most important mentor and teacher. Perhaps, most importantly, Rabbi Coran has helped me understand the unique role of the rabbi in a person or family’s life.” — Rabbi Meredith Kahan

The family theme is strong among the Rockdale congregation and was a major attraction for Assistant Rabbi Meredith Kahan, 28. A third generation member, she joined the Rockdale staff because not only was she “family,” but also “because it is a historic congregation with a deep commitment to tradition, Jewish life and forward-thinking.”

‘A servant leader’

Coran said the temple has renovated the sanctuary, renewed an educational program for adults and reinvigorated the social justice program.

Rabbi Coran and Rabbi Kahan together at a Rockdale event. (Photo courtesy of Rockdale Temple)

“The congregation has a different spirit to it,” Coran said. “There is more singing, more joyfulness, more participation.”

The average age was 65 when Coran arrived; now it hovers between 55 and 60. The congregation has about 100 young families with children. As with other congregations, Rockdale would like to add more families and enhance a robust youth group, Coran said.

“We all need a leader who reminds us that life is not just about doing, but more about being the most we can be as human beings.” — Temple president Daniel Hoffheimer.

Daniel J. Hoffheimer, president of the temple, is part of a family with ties to Rockdale that date back to the 1840s.

“Rabbi Coran is the forward-thinking leader par excellence,” he said. “She is inspirational, yet a servant leader who respects the role of the congregation in governing the temple jointly with her. She is humble in a way that inspires all of us to be humble.”

Hoffheimer, 63, said Coran has made Rockdale “a place to be admired and respected, a place that lives up to the reputation of its glorious history.”

Rockdale celebrates, serves

Hanukkah begins at sundown on Dec. 16, and lasts eight days. Each night, a candle is lit on a menorah, described in the Bible as an ancient Hebrew, multi-branched candelabrum made of pure gold.

  • 20: Rockdale is having a “Synaplex” celebration  with a menorah lighting, congregational dinner, dancing and comedy.
  • 24: Rockdale is sponsoring Chinese food and a movie “Night at the Museum” beginning at 6 p.m.
  • 25: The Women of Rockdale make and serve dinner at Ronald McDonald House. Members of the brotherhood volunteer to make pancakes at Cedar Village, a nonprofit retirement community in Mason.

Rockdale shares a site and has a partnership with Mayerson Jewish Community Center.

Rockdale members are active in a variety of Cincinnati community outreach initiatives. A crew serves Sunday lunch at a soup kitchen in Over-the-Rhine. As part of the Interfaith Hospitality Network, the temple works with Adath Israel Congregation to provide family shelter for the homeless.

“I am hopeful that people see the congregation as participatory,” Coran said. “We invest and engage people. Congregational life can bring meaning. We’re here to build a congregation. I feel very grateful to be here, continue to grow and share people’s lives.”