Rabbi Eliezer Cohen’s Family Commissions Or Chadash’s First New Torah
There was a chuppah, klezmer-style music and dancing, but this was no wedding.
More than 200 well-wishers gathered Sept. 25 for the dedication of a new Torah for Congregation Or Chadash in memory of its late rabbi, Eliezer Cohen.
They met on the lawn of Cohen’s Oak Park home, where his wife, Aviva, still lives, watched as his oldest son inked the final letter — a “lamed” — onto the scroll, and then danced the Torah, under the chuppah, three blocks to the Chabad elementary school on Coolidge Highway where the congregation meets.
It was a bittersweet moment for Aviva Cohen and her 11 children, all of whom attended, some traveling from Cleveland, Baltimore and Savannah, Ga.
They were thrilled to commission the writing of a Torah, but saddened to recall Eliezer Cohen’s unexpected death three years ago at age 67.
“I’m overwhelmed with emotion,” said Rabbi Azaryah Moshe Cohen, who now shares the Or Chadash pulpit with Rabbi Eliezer Finkelman, and also is head of school at Frankel Jewish Academy in West Bloomfield.
“He was a teacher and he dedicated his life to teaching Jewish children. It’s very fitting to have a Torah dedicated in his memory to continue the tradition.”
In creating a new Torah scroll, he said, the family and the congregation are recommitting to the covenant the Jewish people entered into at Mount Sinai.
Eliezer Cohen was the rabbi at Young Israel of Oak-Woods before it merged with Young Israel of Greenfield in 1996. He and several of his congregants then started Or Chadash, which first met in members’ homes. At the end of 2005, they moved to the Coolidge site.
The congregation has about 20 core families, though its High Holiday services attract more than 100. There are no dues and no paid staff; the rent and other expenses are covered by donations. Except for the High Holidays, services are led by members.
Or Chadash has always involved women more than most Orthodox congregations. Women sit separately, but on the side, not behind the men as in some shuls. They participate in services by opening the Ark, reading prayers, or explaining the Torah or Haftarah readings. Women have also served as president.
Cohen taught at Akiva (now Farber) Hebrew Day School for almost 40 years, introducing generations of middle school students to Torah study.
One was Dovid Mandelbaum, formerly of Oak Park who now works as a scribe in Betar, Israel. The Cohen family commissioned him to write the Torah, which he did with the help of Rabbi Moshe Hacker, also of Betar. The project took about a year.
Mandelbaum personally brought the Torah from Israel to Oak Park.
This is the first Torah that is Or Chadash’s own. At first, the congregation borrowed Torahs from other synagogues. They received four scrolls from a Baltimore congregation that closed, but they were not in good repair. Recently, the congregation has been using a scroll borrowed from Hillel of Metro Detroit.
The new Torah has an impressive silver crown, also the congregation’s first, on loan from the children of longtime congregants Benno and Ruth Levi of Oak Park.
Their son Gabe Levi of New York said the crown is a fitting tribute to his late parents and to Rabbi Cohen. His parents felt very connected to the rabbi, especially his father. “Rabbi Cohen really spoke to him, really touched him on a very deep level,” he said.
Many of those at the dedication had been Rabbi Cohen’s students at Akiva, where he was known as a fair but demanding teacher.
“My daughter was terrified when she learned he would be her teacher, but all my kids adored him,” said Sharon Krasner, a teacher from Oak Park. “The things he taught them they were able to use later, in their secular studies as well as Jewish studies.”
Dr. Charles Silow of Huntington Woods, one of Or Chadash’s founding members, said, “Rabbi Cohen brought a freshness to Judaism. He wanted people to learn and understand. He encouraged people to participate.”
Congregation President Elliot Shevin of Oak Park said, “Few could match the depth and breadth of his recall, his logic, his grasp of Jewish history and his ability to keep in mind the fundamentals of what Judaism is about.
“He respected contrary opinions. He demanded his students and constituents use their own minds rather than defer blindly to him. He was the first to show me my opinions on politics and science aren’t incompatible with Torah Judaism. This is why I stayed with him and why I miss him.”
Finkelman said he always regarded Cohen as his teacher, even though they met as classmates at Yeshiva University. Finkelman said he admired Cohen’s “fierce” honesty.
“He wanted students to learn to think in order to experience the job of thinking clearly. If they learned to figure out difficult problems with absolutely honesty, they could keep learning, because they could keep applying their minds to difficult problems,” he said.
Finkelman said Cohen could be “deliberately provocative” for the pleasure of getting others to argue with him. “Better to get people to take sides passionately than to be indifferent or docile,” he said.
By Barbara Lewis | Contributing Writer
Photos by Drasnin-Reuben Photography