April 5 jubilee marks 5 decades in North Texas
By Deb Silverthorn
The North Texas community will celebrate Rabbi Yitzchak Cohen, “Yitz” to most, honoring his 50 years of service at a Jubilee Gala at 7 p.m. Sunday, April 5, at the Renaissance Hotel in Addison.
“I have officiated over thousands of this community’s lifecycle events — the joyful and the sad — and every experience has impacted me, each bringing me a ‘Shehechiyanu,’” said Rabbi Cohen, who came to Dallas in 1970, serving first as cantor, then also rabbi, at Congregation Tiferet Israel for 35 years.
The word “retirement” is not in Rabbi Cohen’s vocabulary. In 2005 he founded Congregation Nishmat Am.
“I planted a seed and we grew a synagogue based on nishmat am, the soul of the people. It’s the heart of each of us — a congregation of love, harmony and respect,” said Rabbi Cohen. “I couldn’t imagine, when we first came here with three synagogues and one day school, a future of nearly 30 shuls, many day schools, preschools, high schools, a yeshiva and a kollel. The growth is a phenomenal shehechiyanu indeed.”
“When you enter a room to honor God, Yitz honors you,” said Marc Kahn, joined by his wife Lori, Dr. David and Gerri Patterson and Dr. Tim and Virginia Shepherd as gala co-chairs with Honorary Co-chairs Mike and Terry Friedman and Donna and Herb Weitzman. “I’ve looked up to him since my bar mitzvah, in 1972, when I walked up to the bimah and he said ‘Marcala, finish strong.’ It’s an honor to recognize the ‘magic of Yitz’ and all he means.”
Rabbi Cohen was born in Krakow, Poland, the son of Holocaust survivors Chana Malka and Rabbi Dov Cohen, both of blessed memory. The family moved to Israel when Yitzchak was an infant in 1949. At 7 years old, he was discovered by, and became the protégé of, liturgical composer Shelomo Zalman Rivlin. Rivlin, founder and director of Shirat Yisrael Institute for Cantors, scouted voices throughout the country, training some of the world’s most famed cantors.
Before his bar mitzvah, Yitzchak sang before audiences in Israel and Europe. At 16 he was onstage in New York’s Yiddish theater circle, where he performed the leading role in the operetta “Shulamit” with Molly Picon, legendary conductor Sholom Secunda.
At just 17, while continuing to perform concerts, Yitzchak began his cantorial career, the youngest cantor in the country, at Congregation Ohev Shalom in Washington, D.C.
More blessed than the prayers he led, was his prayer answered in meeting Rosie Antebi, his future wife. She is the Dallas founder of the Bikur Cholim Society/Ohr Hadash Jewish Healing Center. Married almost 51 years, the Cohens are the parents of Sharona, Jacob and Hannah and the grandparents of Dov, Eden, Gavriella, Orly, Avichai, Jordan and Marissa.
“The example my father has set is the reflection of who he’s been to so many, for so long,” said Jacob, who has long-served as cantor at his father’s side. “He has an unwavering, unconditional love for every human being — not just Jews — everyone. He only sees good and that’s the trait to follow.”
Fifty years is a lot of blessings, a lot of kisses on the keppy, countless hugs and thousands of simchas. He doesn’t know who remembers his sermons, but he knows people remember who married them, who gave the blessings at their bar mitzvah and who was there for comfort.
“Yitz has an extraordinary endurance — in the daily and in the long term. For whatever people come to him, he brings a human connection,” said Nishmat Am’s Executive Director Stanley Siegel. “He brings his personality, humor, caring and an embrace like no one else. He’s Yitz.”
Currently a member of the board of the Dallas Chapter of the FIDF, Rabbi Cohen is a founding member of the North American Board of Rabbis. He served on the boards of many organizations around the world, and is past president of the Dallas Rabbinic Association and a former board member of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas and its Community Advisory Council, the Dallas Holocaust Museum and the Interfaith Chapel Committee of Thanksgiving Square.
“Yitz touches everyone. He’s a community man with a community’s heart. From the beginning we’ve been ‘old friends’ because of how he models living — humble, kind and open,” said Gerri Patterson. “He leads with a spirit of am Yisrael and hinei ma tov — we are all Jews, and indeed how good it is to all sit together.”
Rabbi Cohen’s prize possession, a half black velvet, half knitted yarmulke with “Ani Ohev Kol Yehudi” — I love all Jews’ embroidered on it, defines his rabbinate — his life. “Every Jew is a Jew. There is no you, me or them,” he says.
Donna Weitzman will serve as the master of ceremonies. The event will include entertainment by renowned accordionists Elena and Gregory Fainshtein; a musical tribute composed especially for the occasion by award-winning composer, and longtime congregant of and friend to, Rabbi Cohen, Aaron Kaplan; a “This is Your Life” presentation by Mike Friedman; and toasts by rabbis from near and far. The food, by Simcha Kosher Catering, is Dallas Kosher certified. Cost for the evening is $90 per ticket. To RSVP, or submit a sponsorship, for the April 5 event, visit 50yearswithyitz.com.
Anyone wanting to submit memories, in written form or photos, of events shared with Rabbi Cohen over the last 50 years should email them to firstname.lastname@example.org.