Not Your Average Rabbi
Although Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn comes from a long line of famous Hassidic Polish rabbis who immigrated to Brazil in the 1930s–dating back to the chief Rabbi of Krakow in the early 17th century–his first degree was in psychology.
So how does a young man originally from Sao Paulo, Brazil, who can trace his illustrious lineage to a celebrated rabbi end up as the engaging spiritual leader of a Missouri synagogue?
Cukierkorn left his native country in the late 1980s to attend Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. The first year of his training was spent in Jerusalem where he immersed himself in the history of the ancient city. He then spent four years in Cincinnati at Hebrew Union College, touted as the intellectual, academic, spiritual and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism.
As part of Cukierkorn’s educational requirements, the aspiring rabbi did an internship in Joplin, Mo., arriving on Friday afternoons and returning to Ohio on Sundays. After graduating he went to work as an assistant rabbi in a large Alexandria, Va., synagogue and then took a job in Pennsylvania for four years. It was there that his future crystallized: He decided to move his wife, Denisse, and infant daughter Raquel to Kansas City–an area he had become enamored with during his tenure in Joplin as a rabbinical student.
“One day I drove to Kansas City from Joplin and really liked the city,” says Cukierkorn.
The rabbi, known for his signature sense of humor, says that the streets were numbered in such a way that it was easy to navigate around town, before the invention of GPS.
Cukierkorn and his family settled in Overland Park and he assumed duties at the New Reform Temple, a medium-sized congregation of 300 families at 71st and Main. The popular rabbi is a fixture in the lives of the synagogue’s members, helping young men and women become bar and mitzvahs, performing weddings and funerals, leading discussion groups, speaking at Friday night Shabbat and leading services during High Holy Days. His comedic streak is displayed when he dons a dress, high heels and wig for the annual Purim festival or tells a joke at the synagogue’s annual picnic.
“It’s a great mitzvah–a good thing–to always be happy,” explains Cukierkorn.
The 42-year-old Cukierkorn, a recognized Jewish scholar and frequent lecturer, has written several guides to Judaism that are available in English, Spanish and Portuguese and is an advisor for international organizations dedicated to helping people learn about Classical Reform Judaism. His passion lies in helping congregants and others find meaning in their spiritual journey; Cukierkorn relates his personal trek to that of his maternal grandfather who came to Uruguay in 1930 and was one of the founders of that Jewish community.
“The best part about being a rabbi is the unknown,” says Cukierkorn. “I never know what my next call will be and how I can help people with important life events, whether it’s in Kansas City or abroad.
Cukierkorn, a world traveler who has visited 51 countries and adds more mileage to his frequent flyer account every year, speaks eight languages–including Yiddish, Arabic, Portuguese and Hebrew–and has a penchant for Chinese food no matter where he is on the globe. One of his favorite places in Overland Park to eat Asian is the 888 International Market where, following a tapas-style meal of eggplant, buns, dumplings and rice, the always-inquisitive rabbi can be found cruising the aisles of the expansive store, scouring shelves for interesting produce and ingredients to recreate dishes at home.
The Cukierkorn family thrives on the serenity and friendly environs of Johnson County. Denisse is a native of Honduras who met Cukierkorn in Lafayette, La., when she was in graduate school and he was a student rabbi; she works as a school psychologist in the Shawnee Mission School District. Daughters Raquel, now 11, and 7-year-old Dahlia are active at the New Reform Temple and have busy lives with schoolwork, friends and play dates.
“If you ask Dahlia what her father does, she’ll tell you ‘he helps people,'” says Cukierkorn.
In addition to his work at the New Reform Temple, Cukierkorn is an acclaimed author, teaming up most recently with former Kansas City Star reporter and long-time Faith columnist Bill Tammeus to write the compelling and provocative “They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland during the Holocaust.” The moving book, which was published in September 2009 and is now in its third printing, recounts remarkable and uplifting stories of Jews in Poland who survived the atrocities of that dark time in history with the help of non-Jews.
The book’s inspiration came from a visit Cukierkorn made to Poland in 2004 where he met Irena Sendler who was honored for her work in helping save some 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto.
In 2006 Cukierkorn invited Bill, whom he had known from many interviews, to join him on the arduous journey in compiling a tale about the surprising redemptive lessons drawn from that era. In most cases the stories are based on myriad interviews the duo conducted in the U.S. and Poland.
“We wanted to find stories of non-Jews who risked their lives to help Jews and why they did it,” says Cukierkorn. “We spoke with survivors and members of the families who helped them survive. In fact, there are as many reasons as people. The rescuers and the rescued.”
Cukierkorn says the primary lesson highlighted in the book is that even in the midst of malevolence, individuals can choose to act in civilized ways.
“People who hid Jews in the Holocaust showed that is possible,” says Cukierkorn.
Cukierkorn, a tireless student of the human spirit, insists that when it comes to tolerance, people can change the way they feel by how they act. He points to the people featured in “They Were Just People” as inspirations for tough issues of acceptance and diversity in modern times.
“Those who survived generally were friends or business associates of the non-Jews who helped them,” says Cukierkorn. “By implication, all of us would do well to have friends from religious, racial, ethnic, cultural and economic groups other than our own so in times of trouble we can come to each other’s aid.”
For more information on Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn visit www.rabbicukierkorn.com.
words: Kimberly Winter Stern