Rabbi Shmuel Cohen: 1944-2021

February 21, 2021 by A J-Wire community service announcement
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Sydney’s Cremorne Shile’s Rabbi Shmuel Cohen was a remarkable man.

Rabbi Shmuel Cohen

Born in Morocco in 1944 he was the 3rd child of 7 siblings.

Clearly a very bright boy, he demonstrated such competence at an early age in his religious studies that he did his barmitzvah at 10.

By 12 he had finished his schooling and he told his parents that he wanted to study in Israel.

With no diplomatic ties between the two countries, they knew that contact would be limited if he went, so they refused to allow him to go.

Ever resourceful, Shmuel had heard that Youth Aliya was helping young people get to Israel so he applied to Aliyat Noar (Youth Aliyah) and they helped convince his family to allow him to go to France, where the family had relatives, to study at the Yeshiva Aix les Bains in the north.

However, as soon as he had landed in Marseilles Shmuel, still a young boy, again petitioned the people at Aliyat Noar and, I guess, now had a little more weight as an ‘unaccompanied minor’, and they facilitated his immediate departure for Yeshiva Porat Yosef in Jerusalem.

On the boat travelling across to the new state of Israel, all the young kids were excited to be going to different kibbutzim and couldn’t understand why Shmuel wasn’t planning to join them, but he was not to be dissuaded from his chosen path.

Receiving his first smicha at Porat Yosef he then went on to receive another at Yesh Sde Yakov, and then a third at Metiv Ta.

By then he was barely 18 and entered the army to do his military service. His talents were identified early, and he was sent to be a teacher in Tzfat where he taught everything from physics to biology and human anatomy!

That’s where he met, and in 1965, married his lifelong companion Rivka Durlacher.

In 1967 their daughter Efrat was born, but very soon after, the Six Day War broke out, leaving the new mother alone and far from her family.

With planes roaring overhead and no certainty of Israel winning, or even surviving the conflict, Rivka was busy, desperately trying to paper her windows to protect against shelling, her newborn crying in the background.

There was a knock at the door and a young girl stood there, declaring, “My father said you must come and stay with us.”

Rivka didn’t know who ‘her father’ was and she declined, embarrassed that the cries of her baby were only highlighting her inability to manage.

The child left but minutes later there was another knock and when she opened the door, a man whose face she only knew from shule, pushed past, took little Efrat and said, “Well I’m taking the baby to our house, so you’d better come too!”

Left with no choice Rivka followed them, where, without waiting to be invited she finished off the sandwiches they had put out on the table. She really hadn’t been coping that well. With the help of their daughter Leah and her little sister Drori, Moshe and Esther, an older couple who had survived the Holocaust, proceeded to look after the little Efrati, telling Rivka alternately to rest or go to the shop for them, but not to go into the kitchen.

Rivka assumed that was because their kitchen wouldn’t be deemed to be kosher enough for her, but after a few days when the baby was totally settled they showed her why! There were formula bottles lined up along the sink and Rivka relaxed, now having a baby who didn’t demand her attention all the time and actually slept.

The war may have lasted only six days, but Shmuel was stationed with the tanks in Syria for three months. It must have been a terrifyingly long time and Rivka was glad of the support of her surrogate family.

Finally, Shmuel arrived home, his already olive skin nearly black from the sun and the dirt.

Moshe ran him a hot bath and then declared that tired as he was, they needed to go into the town to show everyone he had returned safely. Everyone had been asking about their beloved teacher.

Sitting on the bus in his newly cleansed state with a kippa on his head, an old man began abusing him. “You religious people never fight. You leave it to our boys! You should be ashamed of yourself!”

No doubt Shmuel would have sat patiently and quietly while the tirade continued, but Moshe was furious. “How dare you! He has been fighting in Syria all this time! And where have you been?”

The bus erupted! One of their brave soldiers was being abused and wrongly accused. They demanded that the bus drive to the police station and throw the man off. The only problem was that the driver was the old man’s son. Nonetheless, with a busload of furious passengers, there was no way out and there he was dumped!

Until Efrat was 10 she thought these people were her grandparents! She never seemed to question how come she had so many grandparents! To this day they are still close.

The next adventure for the Cohen family was when the Sochnut sent Shmuel to teach in Antwerp, in Belgium.

Here, the locals spoke the Flemish that Rivka understood, and the Jews spoke French, so Shmuel was fine. They stayed for four years and returned to Israel in 1974 until, again, duty called Shmuel to Sweden.

By then Itzik and Udi were with them and they stayed from 1977-1982. Beware the Swedish anti-Semite who thinks it is safe mutter comments near the two dark -haired brothers with kippot, who occasionally to this day speak Swedish to each other.

With no other Jewish teachers and no kosher food available, Sweden was a difficult challenge for them.

Kosher meat came from Denmark, or defrosting in the suitcases of visitors, and all their bread was baked by Rivka together with everything else she cooked, no doubt with their usual houseful of visitors and guests.

Here Avishag was born and Rivka fell foul of the law that required new mothers to stay home with their babies on compulsory maternity leave.

I doubt that Rivka ever thought of taking time off for minor things like having babies.

Finally, it was time to return home and Shmuel became principal of a school in Efrat, then for one year he was the principal of a school for girls in a kibbutz on the West Bank.

The journey to get there was always dangerous, necessitating Shmuel to carry a gun with him as he drove. Shmuel refused to call it a school for difficult, or wayward girls, but rather referred to it as a school for a second chance. I remember him telling the story of the girl who, at the end of the week of boarding at the school, always ran away from the bus that was to take her home where, it turned out both her father and brother were abusing her. Another time Shmuel had to make his way into a nightclub to retrieve a young girl.

Shmuel’s attitude to young people who are badly behaving was always that we adults had let them down.

By then Evyatar had completed their family and Shmuel was sent to teach in Memphis from 1987 to 1989. For a year they fostered a troubled young boy in their home, along with their 2 younger children and countless guests who needed a place to stay for a festival or a shabbat.

So now Shmuel was speaking French, Arabic, Hebrew, Swedish and English, and along the way he learnt Yiddish.

The problem is that none of those languages prepared him for Australian, but he picked that up quickly too when he arrived here in 1990 to teach religious studies at Moriah.

At that time Cremorne Synagogue was without a rabbi and Shmuel was approached to assist with our Rosh Hashanah services. Immediately the congregation recognised the wonderful couple who had landed in their midst and Shmuel and Rivka were enticed with a house, harbourside walks, the zoo, and other north shore attractions, but most importantly, a warm and welcoming congregation.

For the next 22 years Shmuel and Rivka became the centre of our community, their home always open – and always full. It emanated the best of Jewish life and learning and attracted – and served – young and old.

My daughter Aliza wrote on her Facebook page, “It is hard to explain how much of an influence Rabbi Shmuel Cohen has been in my life. Growing up in and out of Shmuel and Rivka’s house, being such good friends with Avishag, bringing my husband-to-be for their approval, Shmuel coming to Oxford to marry us, and staying with them whenever we were passing by with the kids, they are truly family.

Although Shmuel was a teacher his whole life, I never felt he was one of my teachers. What I learned from him was from his many quiet kindnesses, the way his actions spoke louder than words, his thoughtfulness and his dedication to the community in Cremorne, his students, and most of all to his family. In so many ways, Rivka and Shmuel were like two halves of the same whole – making this still harder to believe.”

My son Samuel always recalls the ambivalence of accepting the lolly from Shmuel’s outstretched hand during one of the hakafot for Simchat Torah. He absolutely knew he was about to be drawn in to the dancing!

Shmuel’s pockets always had a lolly for a child, a coin for a beggar, or a few shekels for charity to help protect a visitor on their journey home.

And Michael – well Michael was only little when we first met the Cohens and their youngest, Evyatar (just like his father), was so generous to the children whom his parents invited in. Michael would devotedly follow him around, as Rivka would always say, as if her were his Rebbe!

Shmuel and Rivka regarded the shule as an extension of their home, or perhaps their home was an extension of the shule, and Shmuel thought nothing of sweeping the shule floor, bringing their own food across or changing the books over for a festival.

One night Shmuel heard noises at the shule and rushed out to tackle a young man trying to break the glass front door down with a log of wood. He was left with only a shirt in his hand as the man fled. I believe that many years later he sent an apology, but by then his shirt had already been lost! Rivka isn’t one to keep anything for sentimentality, except of course, her endless photos and videos. No one has watched more wedding videos than Rivka, not even the brides themselves!

Judging by the number of us who have stayed with Shmuel and Rivka in Jerusalem, they still think their home is part of our shule!

I know the emails, calls and letters are still coming in for a man who has touched so many.

If Covid hadn’t prevented it, his funeral would have needed a stadium to accommodate all the people who wanted to attend.

And all that Shmuel did was reflected and enabled by his dedicated other half, Rivka.

The mission of the Sochnut states it is to “ensure that every Jewish person feels an unbreakable bond to one another and to Israel no matter where they live in the world, so that they can continue to play their critical role in our ongoing Jewish story.”

They could not have chosen a better man to fulfil their mission.

This address was delivered by Dr Ruth Ratner, a long-standing member of the Cremorne Synagogue.

 

Comments

2 Responses to “Rabbi Shmuel Cohen: 1944-2021”
  1. Gerald Moses says:

    I had the absolute privilege in attending Shule with Rabbi Cohen A/H during my periodic visits to Sydney when I davened during week days at the Central Shule which he regularly attended (presumably because of no minyan at Cremorne). What a brilliant and lovely person.He would make a point of reciting Kaddish in a slower time so that others who were not fluent could follow him. A real mensch.
    I will though take issue with your article which mentions “he did his Bar mitzvah at age 10”. This is not possible. A Jewish male BECOMES Bar Mitzvah at age 13. There is no particular happening for this to occur other than turning 13. Of course from that age that person can be counted towards a minyan and can be called to the Torah.
    I am often heard to state this fact.
    Gerald Moses
    Gold Coast

    • Ruth Ratner says:

      Shmuel Cohen was my rabbi for 22 years and my close friend until he died. He often said he was barmitzvah at 10, and after conferring with his wife Rivka she confirmed this. Apparently in his community it was custom to examine the knowledge of the young boys and Shmuel passed his test at 10 and thereupon took on the obligations of an adult. Nonetheless he was probably unable to participate in a minyan until he was 13. The nominal age of 13 is, of course, not defined in the Torah and there have even been discussions as to whether it should be raised to 15 now that boys may not be considered as religiously mature as in other times and communities.

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