Rabbi Jack Simcha Cohen, who passed away last month on his 78th birthday, was a man of many accomplishments: pulpit rabbi, prolific author, master orator, talmid chacham, and eloquent spokesman for Judaism.
The 18th consecutive communal rabbi in his family, Rabbi Cohen was the son of Rabbi Meir Cohen, executive director of Agudas Harabonim of America, and his wife, Itka.
Born in Asbury Park, New Jersey, the third of four children, he attended public school during his early elementary years, receiving Judaic instruction from his father until he began his formal education at Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin, where he remained until his marriage in June 1961 to Shoshana Nayman, the daughter of Rabbi Yaakov Nayman, a prized student of the Brisker Rav and Rav Elchonon Wasserman.
Rabbi Cohen studied with many Torah giants during his time at Chaim Berlin, ultimately receiving his semicha from Rav Yitzchak Hutner. His secular education was equally robust; he graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Brooklyn College, receiving a masters from NYU and a Ph.D. from Fordham, where he studied with renowned translators of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Vatican philosophers.
With his vibrant personality and boundless energy, Rabbi Cohen was a dynamic force who kindled the light of Yiddishkeit everywhere he went, first with the National Council of Synagogue Youth in its earliest days and then as a pulpit rabbi in West Orange, New Jersey, at Congregation Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob and David.
Rabbi Cohen was also the first executive director of the Metropolitan New York Coordinating Council on Jewish Poverty, devoting much of his time to improving the lives of the needy.
Rabbi Cohen’s next pulpit position was at the prestigious Congregation Shaarei Tefila in Los Angeles, where he would remain for18 years. During that time he became the first Orthodox rabbi elected vice president of the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies; presided over the Board of Rabbis of Southern California; and was the face of Orthodox Judaism in a roundtable religious television program viewed by millions each week.
In time, Rabbi Cohen relocated to Melbourne, Australia, initially as scholar in residence to the Mizrachi Kehilla and then as rabbi there. During his years in Melbourne he was deeply involved in many facets of the Jewish community, including supervising kashrus in the area.
Rabbi Cohen’s final position in the rabbinate was at Congregation Aitz Chaim in West Palm Beach, Florida, the first Orthodox synagogue in Palm Beach County.
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In addition to countless hours spent serving congregants in the various communities in which he lived, Rabbi Cohen was known for his scholarship in Jewish law.
“He was consulted by many rabbis from all over the world,” Judah Cohen said of his father. “He felt his job in life was to find ways to make people’s lives easier within the bounds of halacha. He liked to learn from everybody…and he impacted every aspect of Jewish life. He was at the vanguard of halacha twenty and thirty years ago and today you see the same issues arising again and again.”
Jewish Press associate publisher Naomi Mauer recalled the origins of Rabbi Cohen’s popular Halachic Questions column, the final installment of which appeared in the paper’s July 4 issue, just days before his death.
“I first met Rabbi Cohen when I came to Los Angeles,” said Mrs. Mauer. “He had such a warm smile and friendly personality, and my husband, Dr. Ivan Mauer, and I became big fans. Rabbi Cohen’s knowledge was vast in both Torah and secular subjects and we looked for opportunities to be in his company.
When Rabbi Simcha met my father, Rabbi Sholom Klass, an extraordinary friendship was born and my father would look forward to visits from Rabbi Cohen when he came to New York. I can still picture the two of them in my father’s office, discussing Torah topics for hours and my father would often tell me how much he enjoyed those visits. They were two talmidei chachamim going back and forth, completing each other’s thoughts. My father encouraged Rabbi Cohen to write a weekly halacha column for the paper, and it ran for years.”
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