By Deb Silverthorn
When you walk into Rabbi Yitzchak Cohen’s office, you’re never sure what you are going to hear. The language can switch from English to Hebrew to Yiddish, mid-conversation, and the person on the other end of a phone call might be a newcomer to the community or someone that Rabbi Cohen named as a baby when he first arrived in Dallas, 40 years ago. The instruction can be in the teachings of the Talmud or a playback of a cantorial classic. Such is the world of Rabbi Yitzchak Cohen, who is celebrating his fortieth year in Dallas and his sixtieth birthday.
As a cantor and then rabbi for 35 years at Congregation Tiferet Israel, and now as rabbi of Congregation Nishmat Am in Plano, he has shepherded congregants, advised colleagues and educated thousands. In so doing, Rabbi Cohen has influenced human lives, given inspiration to countless souls and helped develop Dallas into a vibrant Jewish community.
Rabbi Cohen’s range of expertise, the depth of his education and the unique personal connections he has made with thousands of people are due to a unique background, an exceptional vocal talent, an encyclopedic knowledge of Jewish life and law and an unlimited love and faith in his fellow human beings.
Born in Krakow, Poland to the late Rabbi Dov and Chana Malka, who were Holocaust survivors, and raised in Jerusalem, Rabbi Cohen, whose family included many rabbis, navigates easily between the world of traditional Eastern European Jewry and modern-day Israel with all its diverse cultural elements.
At the age of seven, the future rabbi and cantor was discovered by the legendary liturgical composer, Solomon Rivlin, under whose wing he blossomed. From age 11, he was dubbed a “wunderkind” and was invited to give concerts throughout Israel and Europe. By age 16, he was lured to the Yiddish Theater in New York, where he was chosen for the leading role in the Yiddish operetta “Shulamit,” working closely with composers and stars including Shalom Secunda and Molly Picon.
During a concert, Cohen was noticed by the president of Congregation Ohev Shalom, Washington, D.C.’s largest congregation. Soon after, he became its youngest full-time cantor. It was there that his cantorial career flourished and where he met his future wife, Rosie.
In 1970 the Cohens moved to Dallas, where he became the cantor at Tiferet Israel, serving with Rabbi Max Zucker and Rabbi Stewart Weiss. In the early 1980s, Rabbi Cohen returned to Israel and received his rabbinic ordination from the late chief rabbi of Jerusalem, Rabbi Yitzchak Kolitz. He returned to Tiferet Israel and in 1992 became its rabbi, serving there until 2005. “I spent most of my life, 35 years, at Tiferet and I have precious memories and dear friends,” Rabbi Cohen said.
After retiring from Tiferet Israel, Rabbi Cohen founded Congregation Nishmat Am to create an outreach center for the growing Jewish community in Collin County, continuing his work with the same enthusiasm, energy, commitment and drive.
The Cohens’ children, who all attended Akiba Academy and participated in local Jewish youth community programming, are Hannah and David Love (of Houston), the parents of Jordan and Marissa; Sharona and Israel Ashkenazi (of Jerusalem, Israel), the parents of Eden, Gavriella and Dov; and Jacob and Mara Cohen, the parents of Orly and Avichai. Jacob joins his father at the bimah as cantor of Nishmat Am.
“There is no one in the world like him,” said Rosie, founder of the Ohr Hadash Jewish Healing Center, the Bikur Cholim Society and the Jewish Hospice Council of the Southwest. “People are always telling me what he’s done for them: spiritual uplifting, financial help or counsel. People are his life.”
“I want my synagogue to be a kehillah kedosha — a holy community,” Rabbi Cohen said. “Holiness requires you, first and foremost, to be a mensch. Here, at Nishmat Am, I have what I pray for all rabbis to experience in their communities — harmony, respect and learning. You’re only as good as the people around you and I am fortunate to have a community which allows me to realize this dream. It is a collective effort of the entire congregation.”
With over 200 families and more than 100 children in the religious school, Nishmat Am also hosts an active men’s club and sisterhood, a youth group, ongoing adult education and special events. In the past year there have been 26 bar and bat mitzvahs celebrated at the congregation. “Certainly, like many other organizations, we have our financial challenges, but we are wealthy in so many other ways,” Cohen said.
“Being a part of Nishmat Am is nonstop and a place where we always experience the expression of Yitz’s core values,” said Stanley Siegel, executive director of the congregation. “Yitz embraces everyone with a total joy, making everyone feel that they are his ‘favorite.’ He’s a constant energy of love and he treasures humanity.”
Rabbi Cohen prefers not using labels (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, etc.) when identifying Jews. “Rashi commented that at Sinai, we stood together ‘K’ish echad, b’lev echad. One person, one heart,’” he said. “My favorite object is a kippah I found in Jerusalem, half black velvet and half knitted, with the writing ‘Ani ohev kol Yehudi — I love all Jews.’ That’s what I believe with my whole heart.”
“The hundreds of kids that I’ve named and bar mitzvahed, the couples I’ve married, those I was able to comfort in difficult times and those whose simchas I’ve shared, are the accomplishments of which I am most proud,” Rabbi Cohen said. “I’m not sure if people always remember rabbis’ sermons but I do know they remember who married them, who gave the blessing at their bar mitzvah and who comforted them when they needed it.”
“I love this man. Yitz has been a big part of my life, every part of my life,” said Sharon Saltzman Spector, who was Rabbi Cohen’s first bat mitzvah. “He was the cantor at my wedding, he was there for my son Jeremy’s bris, my daughter Jessica’s baby naming and recently he named my granddaughter, Aurora. He’s never changed.”
“He’s known five generations of my family and we’ve all loved him,” said Linda Rosenthal Daniel, who recalls that Rabbi Cohen and her late husband, Robert Daniel, were best friends and “soulmates. He performed the b’nai mitzvah of my children Ginger, Josh and Gabe. He used to study with Gabe and then bring him home and he just did the same with Gabe’s daughter Samantha for her bat mitzvah. History repeats itself and what a blessing in this case.”
“Many of my students are now lawyers and artists, businesspeople, clergy and community leaders. The nachas is when I feel I have had a part in their development,” Rabbi Cohen said. “Our rabbis teach us that one can never be jealous of two people: your children and your students. You always aspire that they should outshine you.”
Rabbi Cohen, who has been honored for his work as rabbi, cantor and community leader, is a past president of the Dallas Rabbinic Association and has served on the board of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas and its Community Advisory Council. He is a founding member of the North American Board of Rabbis. He was a member of the Chapel Committee of Thanks-Giving Square and served on the board of the Dallas Holocaust Museum and ZOA/Bnai Zion. He is involved with the Amitai Heritage Foundation, the National Israel Bonds Rabbinic Cabinet, the Rabbinical Council for Yeshivot Bnei Akiva, and Shirat Yisroel Institute of Sacred Music in Jerusalem.
During his 40 years in Dallas, Rabbi Cohen has been instrumental in bringing great events, speakers and singers, comedians and scholars-in-residence to residents of the community. They have laughed with Howie Mandel, Jan Murray and Jackie Mason. They have learned from Rabbi Shlomo Riskin and “Chicken Soup for the Soul” author Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins, and met heroes like Benjamin Netanyahu and General Avihu Ben Nun, formerly the head of the Israeli Air Force. Rabbi Cohen was instrumental in bringing a 40-vendor merchant caravan to Tiferet Israel, with more than 5,000 people in attendance, during the intifada of 2002.
Dallasites sang with Shlomo Carlebach and some of the greatest cantors of this generation and Rabbi Cohen started a community concert 20 years ago with the Temple Emanu-El and Congregation Shearith Israel cantors and choirs at Tiferet Israel. “Nothing brings people together like music,” Rabbi Cohen said.
“I still walk away, after a lifetime together, always learning something,” said Rosie, amongst her husband’s most fervent supporters, saying that when she attends services, “he shares the beauty of our religion like no one else.”
In honor of Rabbi Cohen, Congregation Nishmat Am is celebrating with a Sept. 13 Torah dedication to the fallen soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces and victims of terror. On Nov. 22 there will be a tribute to Rabbi Cohen to which the entire community is invited. Congregation Nishmat Am is collecting one-page essays or letters about Rabbi Cohen to compile in a book. Anyone wishing to contribute a one-page vignette about their relationship with Rabbi Cohen may send it to email@example.com.
By Deb Silverthorn