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Rabbis of LA | Rabbi Mari Chernow: Helping Her Community Find Meaning

Rabbi Mari Chernow, the senior rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood (TIOH), sums up her job in one word: Relationships.
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July 28, 2022

Rabbi Mari Chernow, the senior rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood (TIOH), sums up her job in one word: Relationships.

“I love working with human beings,” she said. “I love sitting with people, hearing their stories and having shared experiences. They say it’s all about relationships, and it really is.”

Chernow, a Los Angeles native who returned last year to work at TIOH, serves a community of 850 families. Previously, she was the senior rabbi at Temple Chai in Phoenix, and she received her ordination at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 2003. 

Becoming a rabbi was not something Chernow planned, but even as a child, she was spiritual. She went to the early childhood center at Stephen Wise Temple, which led to her parents becoming more connected as well.

“I came home and talked about Jewish songs and practice and they became interested,” Chernow said. “As I grew up, they really deepened their involvement and started learning and teaching and hosting holidays at our home. It became a very robust part of our lives. I always have a spot in my heart for early childhood education for that reason.”

When the rabbi was younger, she would get very emotional when partaking in Jewish customs. “My mom says I was a spiritual child,” she said. “I’d get tears in my eyes when we’d light Shabbat candles. I joke that she might be rewriting history, but that’s her story.”

Despite her spiritual involvement, Chernow decided to study psychology and became a therapist. However, after graduating from school and teaching psychology, fate stepped in.

When she was 23, she worked at Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, where she had previously been a camper. It was the camp’s first summer on the property in Santa Rosa, an exciting time to be there.

“It was like building the plane as we flew it,” Chernow said. “We were ordering bunk beds as the kids came in and figuring out where they’d sleep. It was crazy and intense but so inspiring to see a living, breathing Jewish idea turn into a community.”

This experience convinced Chernow to work with people on a communal level and build relationships with them on an individual basis as well. Today, she is fulfilling that role. 

When she counsels congregants – which is one of her favorite parts of her job – she encourages them to think about their inner lives with an added spiritual dimension. 

“I’m always thinking about the big picture with people,” she said. “Of course, we come together to celebrate individual moments in our lives, but there is also a larger story that happened before this generation. I think about those who came before us and those who will come after us.”

Out of all the issues people face today, there is one that Chernow sees popping up again and again: people are struggling to find meaning in their lives, especially in a post-COVID world.

“A pandemic is a frightening and lonely experience, so there has been a lot of reaching out.”

“People are more interested in deepening their spiritual lives,” she said. “A pandemic is a frightening and lonely experience, so there has been a lot of reaching out.”

She continued, “As cliché as it sounds, people are searching for meaning.”

In 1926, five men who were prominent in Hollywood helped found TIOH, and today, the temple is still home to many people in entertainment. In the past year, Chernow has noticed the amount of creativity in her community.

“It’s extraordinary,” she said. “There are serious projects people are working on for social change, and other projects that are for the sake of entertainment. It’s really just so much fun to be in this environment.”

Social justice is a large part of Chernow’s job at TIOH, which has a social justice coalition and focuses on areas like gun violence prevention, criminal justice reform and racial bias and housing and food insecurity. Every year, around the holidays, they feed 1,000 people in need as part of their program. 

“We have a number of different ways that people can affect the world at large,” the rabbi said.

Every day, when Chernow is on the job, she lets the text from Deuteronomy 30:19, where Hashem says to choose life, guide her in her work.

“It’s my reminder to myself and everybody to get in there and live life,” she said. “It’s sacred. It’s not going to last forever. Live as deeply and fully as you can, even if it means hurt and disappointments and heartache. Get in there and live.”

Fast Takes With Mari Chernow

Jewish Journal: What is your favorite Jewish food? 

Mari Chernow: I’m going to have to go with matzo balls. My mom makes them perfectly. I think her secret is sparkling water.

JJ: How about your favorite movie?

MC: “Harold and Maude,” hands down. It’s so life affirming because it goes dark. The commandment “choose life” is in there because sometimes we don’t. But Harold does choose life.

JJ: Where do you spend your days off in LA?

MC: I have been going on these lovely bike rides. I love getting to know the city by bike. I also go anywhere with extraordinary coffee – right now, I’m a Philz Coffee devotee. 

JJ: What superhero power would you want to have?

MC: I want to time travel and meet my grandparents when they were younger in Eastern Europe. I’d love to catch a slice of their life.

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