“First of several iconic Jewish figures who played pivotal roles in the establishment of the State of Israel:” Review of Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen: Between War and Peace

Human history is filled to the chronological brim with episodes of a welcome peace, and bloody wars. Each has its reason for existence and each fills the pages of history with murder and heroism, good deeds and evil inclinations.

This week’s subject of review is the first of several iconic Jewish figures who played pivotal roles in the establishment of the State of Israel. In each case I intend to focus on a little known chapter of their lives to enhance your appreciation of their contribution to our people’s history.

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Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen (1927-2016) was a founder in the development of the Ariel branch of the Harry Fischel Institute, devoted to the training of community rabbis and rabbinical judges. In addition he was to serve admirably as the chief rabbi of the Israeli port city of Haifa from 1975 to 2011.

However, there was another chapter of his life that was, until recently, little known. This is dealt with in welcome detail in a new biography titled, “Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen: Between War and Peace” (Urim Publications, 2017), authored by Yechiel Frish and Yedidya Cohen.

During the 1948 War of Independence, Rabbi Cohen bravely fought in the defense of the Old City of Jerusalem. It was during this life-risking effort that he was severely wounded and as a result taken away as a prisoner of war by the Jordanian Arab Legion. Despite this experience, and its attendant distractions, Rabbi Cohen was able to keep a secret diary that includes vivid details of the bloody battles in which he participated, and others that he witnessed close hand. These experiences culminated in his eventual capture and harsh imprisonment in Jordan. He was one of the very few rabbis to experience a POW status that was to define his view of life.

Many efforts were made to free him, including those by Chief Rabbi Herzog and Rabbi Shlomo Goren of the Israel Defense Forces. However, a lot more was needed.

His imprisonment is detailed in chapter seven, “In Captivity,” wherein we learn of his living conditions and of the risks he took to survive and overcome the evil designs of his captors.

These efforts involved those of David Ben Gurion, Eliyahu Sasson and Moshe Dayan and he was ultimately released. However, this book’s narrative warrants your attention to events that lead to the establishment of the Jewish state.

All that followed in Rabbi Cohen’s distinguished rabbinical career is owed to the divine salvation that he experienced in those early years as a soldier in defense of the Jewish homeland.

Perhaps no one expressed it better that Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in the following observation:

“Rabbi Cohen has always made a powerful impression on me as a figure of immense open-mindedness and generosity of spirit. Such figures are sadly far too few in the rabbinate today. … His role as the presiding influence on the Ariel Institute is a major factor in its success and relevance to the contemporary Jewish world. I studied there for some months before becoming Chief Rabbi in 1990–91. He is a scholar of great breadth and erudition, and one of the most sympathetic religious leaders I have ever met.”

Review by Alan Jay Gerber

Originally Published http://www.thejewishstar.com

A Wonderful, Gigantic, Humble Man: Review of Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen: Between War and Peace

There may never have been, and likely never to be, a more well-rounded rabbinic leader in the State of Israel than Rav Shear Yashuv Cohen.

Rav Shear Yashuv, who I can consider one of my personal mentors, was a scholar, warrior, peace maker, pietist, and community activist. Although primarily associated with the city of Haifa, a worthwhile story in its own right, he played a role in the establishment and direction of the State of Israel.

In this volume, readers will learn things about Rav Shear Yashuv as never before revealed. An inspiring biography that is full of personal accounts and testimonies, it also offers a unique angle on the establishment of Israel in general, and the rabbinate in particular. I would also add that there is a subtle political commentary between the lines (Does anyone know that Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer called Rav Kook “the backbone of the entire Jewish people” or that the Chazon Ish frequently “sang the praises of Rav Kook”?).

In addition to this being the life story of a true Gadol B’yisrael, the book also discusses many fascinating topics related to Rav Shear Yashuv’s life such as: the Nazir status and story of him and his father, excerpts from Rav Kook’s life as well as other Gedolei Yisrael, life as a member of the underground, IDF, and POW in Jordan, the story of Machon Harry Fischel, Jewish life in Haifa, and halachic rulings rendered by Rav Shear Yashuv.

This is a wonderful book about a wonderful, and gigantic, humble man.

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Review by Rabbi Ari Enkin

Originally Published on http://torahbookreviews.blogspot.co.il

War Hero, Captive, Chief Rabbi, Jerusalem Deputy Mayor, and Diplomat to the Vatican. Review of Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen: Between War and Peace

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Chief Rabbis come and go, but few – if any others – have been referred to in front of an audience of hundreds of people (NYC, May 14, 2008) by a world famous rabbi as “Chief rabbi of the world.” Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen served for about 35 years as the Chief Rabbi of Haifa and President of its religious courts. But his impact on the Jewish people throughout the world may have been unprecedented. Other rabbis logged more miles than he did (think Shlomo Carlebach and Meir Kahane) and impacted more lives than he did, but it was and is rare to find a Chief Rabbi – after Chief Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook – who was as beloved by many of the most secular of Jews as well as by many of the most traditional of Jews.

Those who read this book will not be surprised by this unusual claim, since few non-family members of the great Chief Rabbi Kook literally sat on his knee, as a child, interacted with him on various levels, and was tested regularly by him in his Jewish studies. Not only did he pass these tests, but he won personal compliments for his observations and questions, and, perhaps almost as uniquely, he savored these tests, all by the age of 8!

Rabbi Cohen was raised in holiness by the original codifier of some of Rav Kook’s writings when Rav Kook was still alive. The Rav HaNazir of Jerusalem, one of the closest protégés of Rav Kook, uniquely lived the holy life of a Nazir, and also originally raised his son as a Nazir – not cutting his hair or drinking wine. Rav Shear Yashuv was the only known “Nazir from birth” (though not technically or literally) until he decided, at the age of 16, that he had had enough, although he remained a vegetarian for his whole life, and refrained from drinking wine for his whole life.

The Rav HaNazir lived a secluded life, with his wife, in their own apartment for decades, surrounded by books and plants, where students from the Yeshivat Merkaz Harav [Kook] would come for special lectures. There can be no greater irony than that the Nazir’s son was destined to become not just a bit more outgoing, with such a low bar to hurdle, but would come to personify the most ecumenical Israeli ever, reaching out to more religious leaders of more religions – including his own – than virtually any other rabbi – or chief rabbi – in Israel’s history. He was the first Jew to address the Synod of cardinals at the Vatican.

Can anyone even conceive of any other rabbi who interacted closely, as a child, with Chief Rabbi and religious Zionist icon Kook, then as a young man, with the Chazon Ish, and later with such luminaries as Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (the American religious Zionist icon and long-time top rabbi of Yeshiva University and modern Orthodoxy whose stature remains unmatched), to the iconoclastic rabbis of Riverdale, to the Lubavitcher Rebbe (who had hid from the Bolsheviks for seven months in the home of a grandfather of Rabbi Cohen), to the Pope (whom he met one-on-one more than once, as the lead representative of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate), to the Dalai Lama, and to the Archbishop of Canterbury? Continue reading “War Hero, Captive, Chief Rabbi, Jerusalem Deputy Mayor, and Diplomat to the Vatican. Review of Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen: Between War and Peace

“A Unique and Visual History” Review of Larry Ben-David’s American Interests in the Holy Land

Review by Dov Peretz Elkins

Senator Joseph I. Lieberman writes: “With this wonderful book, Lenny Ben-David continues to strengthen the bonds between the United States and Israel.”

American Interests in the Holy Land provides a unique and visual history of the American fascination and dedication to a Jewish national home.

Jewish life in the Holy Land reawakened during the 19th century, but photographs from this period are scarce. Collecting images from the archives of the Library of Congress, the Ottoman Imperial Archives, the NY Public Library, university and church libraries worldwide, and family albums, Lenny Ben-David provides a unique visual history of the American fascination and dedication to a Jewish national home in the Holy Land. Short photo essays include details such as why Lincoln wanted to visit Jerusalem, how the U.S. Navy saved the Jews of Palestine in 1915, why the Chief Rabbi of Palestine visited the White House in 1924, where Mark Twain stayed in Jerusalem, and much more.

Lenny Ben-David has been involved in the study and enhancement of U.S.-Israel relations for more than 40 years. He served as director of AIPAC’s Israel office (The American Israel Public Affairs Committee) for 15 years, and is the author of Myths and Facts. Ben-David was the Deputy Chief of Mission in Israel’s Embassy in Washington, D.C., for three years, and consulted for foreign governments and corporations. He has published scores of articles in National Review, The Cutting Edge, Weekly Standard, Ha’aretz, Jerusalem Post, JCPA publications, Near East Report, and NY Jewish Week, on topics including Israeli defense, American Jewish politics, and terrorism. Ben-David is Director of Publications at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and publisher of www.israeldailypicture.com, a site dedicated to photo essays on the Holy Land.

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Originally Published on JewishMediaReview


Review of Debbie Weissman’s Memoirs of a Hopeful Pessimist: A Life of Activism Through Dialogue


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Dr. Debbie Weissman was born in 1947, just after the Shoah and just before the establishment of the State of Israel. Her memoirs, entitled Memoirs of a hopeful pessimist – a life of activism through dialogue, are not only an account of life events, as much as a travel book. She does describe milestones in her life, both the spiritual and mundane, her career and activism, but above all she brings the reader along on her travels, the physical ones and the philosophical ones. It’s a fast-paced book, witty and to-the-point, and those who have met her in person will hear her voice emitting from the pages.


In her opening chapter, Debbie quotes a Chinese curse that reads “May you live in an interesting time”, and adds that she feels blessed to do so. She toys with the idea that she is an “unlikely memoirist”, and that her memoirs really are a collection of short stories. Personally, I am glad that she has used this format, because it creates a vivid backdrop to her thoughts and memories. And while the tone of the book is very much Debbie’s, she allows the people she meets to be the main characters. It’s humble, and humbling.

Debbie’s life story unfolds parallel to the history of feminism, and the history of Israel. She writes that she made Aliyah to “a largely secular, left-leaning country” and that she now lives in “a right-wing, religious and traditional society”. While voicing her criticism on the policies of the State of Israel vis-à-vis its Palestinian neighbors, she remains cautiously optimistic for a solution, and as a dialogue activist she had no doubt instilled hope in those she has engaged in dialogue with. She mentions that she has lived to see the Berlin Wall being torn down, the end of Apartheid in South Africa and a black man being elected, and re-elected as the President of the United States. She too, served two terms – as the first Jewish, female President of the International Council of Christians and Jews, which aptly illustrates the ground-breaking progress made during the past decades.

I am particularly fond of her short anecdote about learning sign language as a way to communicate with a friend across the classroom, after having been separated by an annoyed teacher. I imagine this says a lot about Debbie and her personality. She believes fervently in communication and meeting the Other, despite the pain it might entail. Her musings on Purim and historic anger are essentially concise advice on anger management, and can be applied to a wide range of relationships besides the one between neighbors and partners in dialogue. I get the impression that Debbie is deeply self-critical, but not in the sense that she puts herself down, rather that she demands progress from herself. She writes that the Twelve Calls of Berlin may be the first time that Christians and Jews have been self-critical in each other’s presence; indeed an important step in the relationship between Christians and Jews. And no doubt, self-criticism will be needed as the dialogue between Christians, Jews and Muslims progresses.

What have I learned from Debbie’s memoirs? I have learned that dialogue takes time, and that we must let it take time, despite our eagerness to move ahead. I have also learned that one needs to travel to fully understand where one comes from. Her memoirs are deeply serious – although I suspect that the long-lost memoirs she wrote at the age of six might have been even more serious – and hilariously funny. A notable feminist and educator, Debbie is also a prominent example of a Jewish comedienne. I must admit that some tears were shed on my part while reading her book – and while some were due to her moving accounts, most were tears of laughter. Fitting, contrasts being one of the key themes of the book.

I started by calling Debbie’s memoirs a travel book. I will finish by calling it a love story. Debbie’s accounts on teaching, travelling and engaging in dialogue are nothing short of love stories. As are her writings on Israel and particularly Jerusalem as a multicultural, multiethnic and multi-religious city. Debbie is one of the few people who can honestly say that she has prepared gefilte fish and visited Arafat’s grave on the same day. How lucky we are that she, despite being a busy retiree, decided to write down this collection of stories.

Nike Snijders | 01.04.2017

Originally published on  http://www.jcrelations.net/