Rabbi Shimon Cohen Z’L – A Legend of Legends
“I am sure he was the Gadol Hador in Ahavat Yisrael”.
“He loved me like a father”.
“The entire Yahadut of my family is only thanks to him”.
These quotes are only a sampling of hundreds and hundreds of similar expressions of love and respect that the Flatbush Syrian community had for its late departed Rabbi and mentor of half a century, Rabbi Shimon Cohen zichrono livracha.
As we reach the end of the shivah period for our dear Rabbi, it behooves us to take the time and reflect on the enormous contribution that he made, and the critical role that he played in the spiritual rennaissance of the community, and in the lives of his students. In sheer numbers it has been estimated that he had taught over five thousand students at Magen David Yeshivah. Of those, and aside from those, many thousands had also attended his Shabbat minyan at Cong. Bet Torah. The incredible chas hivut hatorah that he imparted in his amazing sweet and encouraging way, influenced the overwhelming majority of these students to go on to live lives of Torah-true Jews. The peripheral effect that this had on the many families of these students is staggering, and boggles the mind as to the sheer numbers of lives the Rabbi impacted in his time with us. One woman at the Shivah exclaimed, “My husband learned by him. My son learned by him, and I was looking forward for my grandson to learn by him.” A statement which holds true for many families.
Rav Yisrael Salanter once explained that goal of a yeshivah is to build the self esteem of the students. Rabbi Cohen was the paragon of this virtue, as he went to endless lengths to connect to the essence of each child, bringing out their unique talents. Future teachers would come to observe his classes in order to discover the secret to his success. One fascinating story was shared at the Arayat by a former student-turne d-assistant-Rabbi in Rabbi Cohens minyan at Beit Torah.
He described the beginning of Rabbi Cohens career, which began by substituting for a particularly difficult class in Magen David. This boy was actually the “leader” of the troublemakers in that group, and resolved to make sure that the new sub would quickly move on. However after two weeks with Rabbi Cohen, the boys begrudgingly realized that they were enjoying his class and participating in the activities. In fact, the mother of this leader boy hired Rabbi Cohen to learn with him after class, after seeing the impact he had made on her sons class. At first this seemed like too much to handle. Rabbi Cohen as a Rebbi. Rabbi Cohen as a tutor. But after a somewhat bumpy start, Rabbi Cohen came up with the suggestion that for every ten minutes of tutoring, he would have to watch the boy play basketball for five minutes. And this is what they did. However this arrangement lasted for a grand total of three days . After that the boy mentioned that he feels that he can do twenty minute stretches as well. Then thirty, then forty, until eventually he did the entire hour in one go.
This same boy would periodically come pray in the youth minyan at Bet Torah, and he would spend sometime outside talking. One Shabbat he noticed Rabbi Cohen coming his way, and braced himself for the encounter. “Rabbi”, he said, “what do you want from me? I am comimg , “Oh no!” said Rabbi Cohen, “I want you to become my assistant. I need you to get the guys to come and pray”. Who ? me?
“And”, the student continued, “for the next thiry years I was Rabbi Cohens assistant and I loved him with all my heart.”
Rabbi Eli Mansour, a former student of Rabbi, described how Rabbi Cohen would have them read pesukim from the Torah, as he would stand behind them massaging their backs in encouragement to build their self confidence. If they felt unconfortable, he would whisper in their ear “continue you are doing great”. This memory stayed with the boys for their entire life. It is no wonder that every student felt that he was Rabbi Cohens closest friend.
Many times he would tell the family to begin the Seudat Shabbat without him on Shabbat morning, since inevitably He would stop to greet every person along the way with his signature smile, and caring words. He would attend and stand under the Chuppah virtually at every wedding at the request of the couple, as each talmid was precious to him as his own child. His sense of self expanded to include all students no matter how different. In the words of his brother, Harav Gavriel Shlit”a, a dayan in Los Angeles, Rabbi Cohen viewed everyone as tcheilet, a beautiful color likened to the ocean blue. Although an ocean contains mud and stones underneath, nevertheless when viewed from afar, one only sees the beautiful blue waves, so too Rabbi Cohen only saw the good in people, a ta lent he honed to perfection.
The family itself was uniquely impacted by Rabbi and Mrs Batsheva Cohen’s generosity, when -although newly married- they took on themselves to support all his siblings who had arrived on these shores. In what has become a family legend, they recall Rabbi Cohen’s efforts to bring them over. Being a newcomer himself, he had no way to pay for passage for his siblings to come from Morrocco. Someone suggested he approach the Satmar Rebbe, Rabbeinu Yoel Teitelbaum z”l. A shy young man by nature, and knowing the Rebbe only spoke Yiddish, young Shimon Cohen tried communicating in Hebrew. The Gabbai immediately censured him for adressing the Satmar Rav in “Ivrit” [a zionistic language in the opinion of the Rebbe], upon which the Rebbe himself interjected that in fact this was “Lashon Kodesh”, as spoken by the Sefardim in their home country, as opposed to “Ivrit”, an adapted language.
After explaining his desire to bri ng his siblings over, and offer them a Torah education, the Rebbe opened his drawer and used both hands to remove a huge pile of money and place it on the table. The Rebbe inquired if it was enough, and young Shimon Cohen, who had never seen so much money in his life, concurred that it definitely seemed sufficient. This eventually helped bring the family over, and provide for their needs as they began a new life on this continent.
After such an amazing life, one can begin to comprehend the moving story shared at the levaya, a story of incredible sensitivity to the feelings of others, even a small child. One Sukkot Rabbi Cohen noticed a young boy holding an etrog and crying bitterly. Upon asking why he was crying, the boy explained that his pitom had broken off, something which can invalidate the etrog. Rabbi Cohen told him not to cry and promised him to bring him a kosher etrog the following day. The boy insisted and asked if it was possible to get it that night, to which Rabbi Cohen sensitively replied that he would try to bring him one that same night, something he set out to do. As Rabbi Cohen walked to the house of the boy he felt strong pains in his heart, and was forced to constantly sit down along the way, until he reached the boys home. Later that night Rabbi Cohen succesfully underwent triple bypass surgery on his heart. After learning of its success he shared his conviction that it was only in the merit of the kindness he did with the young boy. The Etrog symbolizes the heart, and therefore Hakadosh Baruch Hu granted him a succesful surgery on the heart.
As Rabbi Cohen lay in the nursing facility for the last two years of his life, hundreds of relatives, students and friends came to visit and to pray. Notebooks were kept at his bedside in which countless letters were penned. These emotion laden entries contain the yearning of the many students seeking their Rebbi again. Of the many children who seek their fathe r again.
May Hakadosh Baruch Hu grant us in His great mercy, that Rabbi Shimon Cohen, our great Rabbi, teacher, father and friend, be returned to us one day soon in Tehiyat Hametim, along with the many generations of tzadikim among whom he has been laid to rest, and whose great work he has been instrumental in perpetuating.
Yehi Zichro Baruch.
Written by his brother Rabbi G Cohen and his nephew Rabbi Eliezer Cohen