While Rabbi Menachem Hacohen, now a Claims Conference vice president, was serving as Romania’s Chief Rabbi, a friend told him of a lone elderly Jew in a Romanian village who, in memory of the 300 Jews killed in the Shoah, lit the lights in the synagogue every Friday night, put a siddur on every seat, and placed tallitot on the seats every Shabbat morning. Rabbi Hacohen would bring food, clothes and medication to the man. Two years ago, the man passed away. “He was very sick then; he couldn’t speak.” Rabbi Hacohen told me. “When I came in, he took my hand and cried for half an hour.”
His motivation for helping survivors is very deeply personal. After World War II, the Hacohen family welcomed to Israel their cousins who had survived the Shoah, including Yisrael Meir Lau, who would someday become the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel, and Yitzhak Artzi, who would become deputy mayor of Tel Aviv and a member of the 11th session Knesset. With most of his other extended family murdered by the Nazis, Rabbi Hacohen’s connection to the Shoah has greatly influenced his life’s work.
Our Executive Committee Chairman Reuven Merhav informed me that he recently attended an 80th birthday celebration for Rabbi Hacohen that was organized by the Moshavim Movement in Israel, of which Rabbi Hacohen has served as the spiritual leader since 1967. At the event, he was honored by a recorded personal message from President Shimon Peres, and attendees included the Minister of Industry, Trade and Labor, Shalom Simchon; the Chief of General Staff of the IDF, Lieut. General Benny Gantz; and many other dignitaries. Also representing the Claims Conference at the celebration in addition to Reuven was Zvi Inbar, our senior consultant for allocations in Israel.
“I am fulfilling my duty as a Jew, as a rabbi, and as a human being. If I didn’t do it, I would feel guilty all my life. As long as G-d gives me years, I will continue to do it,” said Rabbi Hacohen of his motivation for working with survivors.
Rabbi Hacohen’s illustrious history is in many ways the story of modern Israel, and he is admired by all as a man skilled in building broad consensus and amicable relationships throughout a career serving the evolving Jewish state. Born in Jerusalem in 1932, he studied at the famous Hevron yeshiva and was ordained by the leading rabbis of the era, Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Herzog and Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren.
In 1951, Rabbi Hacohen entered the IDF and served in the Nahal parachuting unit before moving to various rabbinical positions, including chaplain of the Navy and editor of cultural and religious publications of the army rabbinate.
Rabbi Hacohen has served for 45 years as chief rabbi of the Moshavim Movement, which comprises more than 400 agricultural cooperative villages, and as the informal chief rabbi of the nation’s kibbutzim. In this capacity he has been instrumental in bridging gaps between communities, traditions and lifestyles of new immigrants from more than 50 countries. He told me that he has also used this position to help educate new generations of Israelis about the Shoah while inspiring them to help cultivate Israeli strength and pride.
From 1974 through 1988, Rabbi Hacohen served as a Member of the Knesset and at various times was a member of the Knesset Committees on Education and Culture, Interior Affairs and the Environment, Foreign Affairs and Security, Finance, and Aliyah and Absorption. During this period, Rabbi Hacohen was instrumental in bringing together religious and secular members in the Knesset and helping to create a political consensus on various Jewish issues.
In 1976 Rabbi Hacohen founded and still heads the Sapir Center for Jewish Culture and Education in the Old City of Jerusalem, which conducts Jewish educational programs for youth from all sectors of Israeli society.
In 1998 Rabbi Hacohen was appointed to the position of Chief Rabbi of the Jewish Communities of Romania, a position significantly assisted by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which he held until his recent retirement. In this capacity, he was a member of the international committee to research the Shoah in Romania and helped reconstruct Jewish communities which had been nearly destroyed during WWII and the ensuing decades of Communist rule. Once a year, Rabbi Hacohen would run a three-day seminar for youth in Romania to teach the Holocaust history that was neglected by the Communist government. “During my service in the Claims Conference I visited many communities in Eastern Europe and FSU teaching about the Holocaust,” Rabbi Hacohen told me. “In every Limmud conference I gave two or three lectures. I wrote 16 books about Jewish history.” Highly regarded in government circles, Rabbi Hacohen assisted in retrieving communal property and helped strengthen the national standing of Jewish communal institutions.
During his time in this position, Rabbi Hacohen paid special attention to the lonely and ill Nazi victims throughout the country, visiting them often and ensuring they were receiving the help they needed. “The Claims Conference support was not only financial but it was emotional. Every one of the survivors knew about the Claims Conference. Some of them used to write letters to me that they suffered, that they lost everything they had, and that they needed help from the Claims Conference,” Rabbi Hacohen told me recently. “Without the help of the Claims Conference, these people would not survive.”
“When Rabbi Miller invited me to join the Claims Conference, I couldn’t say no,” said Rabbi Hacohen, who joined the Board of Directors in 2000. He currently serves as co-chairman of the Israeli Advisory Committee on Social Welfare Allocations. Here too, we have had the benefit of his wise counsel and talent for bridge-building.
May he have many more years of good health and fruitful accomplishments. Ad Meah V’Esrim.