Last month our community lost a giant, a man who, in his own quiet way, helped reshape Jewish destiny in our community. A man who never sought public acclaim, rather from the background he played a major role in the growth of Jewish life.
Said Cohen, known as Sy arrived on a cargo ship from Iran to the U.S. in 1949. He came to these shores lured by the promise of freedom and opportunities in America. He attended college, married and eventually moved to California, where he launched a successful business. We became friends almost 25 years ago, when someone suggested I meet a Jew with a warm heart. He dedicated our congregation, Beth Meir HaCohen in Yorba Linda, in memory of his father.
Sy Cohen taught me many important lessons in life. The first, was the centrality of the Mitzvah of Kibud Av VeEm, honoring your mother and father. He never asked to be inscribed on a plaque, and never asked for his name to be recognized. He insisted that his father’s memory be remembered. He saw this as a way to honor his father. This approach is central to Judaism. Our tradition teaches that the soul is eternal and lives on in the spiritual world. Our actions in this world can uplift the soul. By learning Torah, saying Kaddish, doing a mitzvah in the memory of a loved one, we propel their souls to spiritual heights. Sy lived this ideal.
Sy was a man of vision and action. While many in the community are willing to support important projects when pushed and prodded, Sy would seek ways to make a difference. He carefully evaluated ideas to see if they would truly be effective. Once he saw benefit, he would make an investment without fanfare or tumult. Quietly, and from behind the scenes, he made the strategic gifts that would ensure a strong community for the future. During the last year of his life he spearheaded the opening of Alef Preschool Yorba Linda. It opened a few weeks before his passing.
Finally, Sy was a man who deeply valued his own intellectual and spiritual growth. When we first met over a quarter of a century ago, we started our relationship by learning Torah. Sy’s son Steven tells me the employees at his company would wonder about the verbal debate that would emanate from his office, as we explored a line of Talmud together. In his later years, after he retired, my son Rabbi Shuey would study with him weekly in his home. When I visited I would find books of Torah, including textbooks from the JLI (Chabad’s Adult education courses) spread on the table in his family room. Sy understood that it was not enough to support Jewish education. He knew that he also could gain from learning Torah.
Sadly, our community has lost a man that made a profound difference. However, he has left a legacy that will live on for generations.
Rabbi Eliezrie is at Congregation Beth Meir HaCohen/Chabad, his email is firstname.lastname@example.org.