RELIGION / JOHN DART : Controversial Rabbi Will Retire Early; Plans Last Sermon May 29

Rabbi Bernard M. Cohen will deliver his last sermon May 29 at Temple Solael in West Hills as part of an early retirement plan recommended by a national committee summoned to arbitrate conflicts between the rabbi and the temple board.

Barry Barman, president of the Reform synagogue's board of directors, declined to say why the board was displeased with Cohen, who has been the rabbi of the congregation for 21 years. He has worked extensively in interfaith programs in the San Fernando Valley and is also familiar to thousands of non-Jews who watched his early Sunday morning program, "First Person," aired for nearly five years on KCOP in the 1980s.

"He's done a lot of good things and he has done a lot of controversial things," Barman said.

"Anyone who has a dynamic personality inspires some people to love him and some people to strongly dislike him," Barman said.

Cohen, who turned 62 last week, had three more years to go on his contract with the temple but agreed to call in for arbitration by the joint committee representing the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the Central Conference of American Rabbis. The group recommended early retirement, as of June 30, and granted Cohen the title of rabbi emeritus.

"It worked out rather well," Cohen said. "I'm sure there are those in the congregation who are extremely happy and those who are extremely sad."

The temple, which has about 420 member families, has begun interviews of candidates for the rabbinical post, Barman said.

A rabbi who insisted on anonymity said that some rabbinical peers have criticized Cohen for his standards in marrying Jewish and non-Jewish partners.

"A small minority of Reform rabbis perform mixed marriages and Rabbi Cohen is notorious for performing them anywhere and anytime--even on the Sabbath--and for an inflated fee," the rabbi said. Cohen responded that "on the rare occasion that I do it on the Sabbath, it has to be after the service is over.

"The business about fees is outlandish. My fees are little different than those of other rabbis and there is no fee for certain categories of people.

"I'm not being drummed out; it was my every intention to take early retirement," Cohen said.

Rabbi Solomon Kleinman, a former western region director for Reform Judaism who once filled the pulpit at Temple Solael while Cohen was on a short sabbatical, said that indeed Cohen had told him that he hoped to take an early retirement.

Describing Rabbi Cohen as a "contentious figure," Kleinman said that "infighting at the synagogue has led to some disaffection by members in recent years. This is the kind of thing where conflict seemingly is resolved but keeps roiling until finally it becomes an agenda that won't go away."

A native New Yorker, Cohen was graduated from Long Island University, Columbia University and Hebrew Union College. He earned a doctorate in clinical psychology from the University Without Walls in Santa Monica, now called Sierra University and located in Costa Mesa. He earned a doctor of ministry degree in 1977 from the School of Theology at Claremont.

Although not an active figure in Reform rabbinical circles or the Southern California Board of Rabbis, Cohen has been especially visible in interfaith and community programs.

In 1989, Cohen started the LifePLUS Clergy Network to assist clergy in dealing with emotional disorders and drug abuse by congregants or their own families. Cohen is the salaried director of the 320-member group that meets monthly and sponsors educational and charitable programs. It is affiliated with UniHealth America, which operates Northridge Hospital Medical Center, among other facilities.

"He has done a superb job in clergy networking by providing a service not available before," said Rabbi Steven B. Jacobs of Encino, president of the Pacific Assn. of Reform Rabbis. Jacobs declined further comment.

Adept at publicity, Cohen drew media attention on different occasions in the early 1980s when he used mimes or marionettes to illustrate his sermons and passed out 22-page coloring books for congregants to "color" their thoughts during special services.

Cohen reactivated the communications committee of the Valley Interfaith Council, producing video programs for public access cable television and helped to upgrade the council's newsletter. Cohen said he will become chairman of the council's development committee in July.

"He's an individual who never outgrew hyperactivity; he's constantly on the run," said Rabbi Eli Schochet of Congregation Beth Kodesh, a Conservative synagogue in West Hills.

Cohen's final Friday night service at Temple Solael, located at 6601 Valley Circle Blvd., will be attended by a half-dozen elected officials and religious leaders. Special music will be presented by Cantor Bernard Savitz and a choir led by Art Broadus.

No, says the Rev. Johnny Carlson of Burbank, he's not retiring this month.

Unlike comedian Johnny Carson, who will host his final Tonight Show at the NBC studios on May 22, the minister with the similar-sounding name will stay several more years as pastor at a church a half-dozen blocks away.

"I could retire, but this is one of the most fulfilling ministries I've had in 40 years," said Carlson, 62, pastor of Magnolia Park United Methodist Church.

Although not an exact match, Carlson's name has drawn many comments from many people, especially when they learn that he works in Burbank.

Rarely does a minister in a mainline church use a nickname instead of his real name.

But Carlson said that he has been called "Johnny" since childhood. His father, also a minister, has the same first name, Harold, and to avoid confusion in the same Southern California Methodist circles, the younger Carlson kept his nickname as an adult.

The small congregation has some members who work in show business, but Rev. Carlson has no church counterpart to Carson's sidekick, Ed McMahon.

"I'm the only full-time staff person here," Carlson said.

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