About Us

A Humanist Approach to Judaism

Beth Chai Jewish Humanist Congregation of Greater Washington is an open, welcoming community that celebrates Jewish values, history, ethnicity, music and culture. We believe that it is up to humans to create the world we wish to live in, and we work to bring alive the principles of tikkun olam--“repair the world.”

We welcome all, including people who believe in God and those who do not, as well as interfaith families searching for a place where everybody feels at home.

Throughout the year, Beth Chai members gather for holiday services and celebrations and for a robust set of adult education and cultural events, as well as social action activities. Our Sunday School offers Jewish education beginning at pre-K, through our moving and personal B’nai Mitzvah ceremonies.

Our Sunday School meets at Burning Tree Elementary School, and our high holiday services are held at River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation, both in Bethesda, MD. Rabbi Debbie Cohen is also available to officiate wedding and baby naming ceremonies. 

Our congregation is devoted to understanding and expressing Jewish heritage and culture in the light of humanistic principles and values. We deepen our Jewish identity by interpreting the history and traditions of Jewish civilization in a modern spirit.

Beth Chai is the perfect place for people looking for a meaningful way to celebrate Judaism that speaks to their values.

Our History

Four decades of Jewish humanism in DC

Beth Chai was formed in 1978 by a group of Jews in Washington looking for an alternative approach to Judaism rooted in humanism, heritage, culture and values. We were originally affiliated with the Society for Humanistic Judaism, but for many years now, Beth Chai has been independent.

In 1987, Arthur Blecher (pictured) joined the lay-led group as rabbi. Ordained in the conservative movement, he found himself more comfortable with a humanistic approach, and helped Beth Chai grow in numbers and ambition. We added a Sunday School, increased our programming, formalized our social action work and found our high holiday services expanding every year. (Read more about Rabbi Blecher's journey here).

In the summer of 2017, Rabbi Blecher retired, and Rabbi Deborah Cohen joined us.

Deborah Bodin Cohen

Rabbi Deborah Bodin Cohen was born and raised in Maryland. After graduating from the Honors English program at the University of Michigan, she worked in Washington at various public interest groups, including the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. She then studied at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem and New York.

Since ordination in 1997, Rabbi Cohen has served Beth Shalom in Cary, N.C., Temple Emanuel in Cherry Hill, N.J., Har Shalom in Potomac, Md., and Ohef Sholom Congregation in Norfolk, Va.

Rabbi Cohen, who goes by Debbie, is also a noted author. She has published seven Jewish children’s books, a teen novel and two teacher manuals, with another children’s book in production. Her many literary prizes include a National Jewish Book Award. She is also the founder and owner of the Story House, a mobile bookstore for children and teens. Rabbi Cohen has been involved in numerous communal and interfaith organizations and currently serves on the Rockville Human Rights Commission.

Rabbi Cohen and her husband, David, a journalist, are joyfully raising three children-- Arianna, Jesse and Ezra--in Rockville. A rather unruly Collie, named Indigo, completes the family.

Our Leadership

Beth Chai is led by members of the congregation, with the support of our part-time rabbi and part-time education director.

Jake Stenzler


Katie Turnacioglu

Vice President

Joshua Lubell


Debbie Cohen


Dorothy Chung


Brandon Hemel

Liturgy and RRUUC Liason

Laura Meckler


Yevgeniya Nusinovich

Communications Chair

Seth Garland

Membership Chair

Marion Zatz

Adult Education Program Chair

Lisa Spain

Social Action Chair

Hillary Fitilis

High Holidays

Ronnie Kingsley

Director of IT

Robert Rosenberg

Past President

Madeline Ellis


Paid staff includeRabbi Deborah Bodin Cohen and bookkeeper Diane Page