Jack Cohen

Lisa Mandel
Unsung Hero Jack Cohen at B’nai Torah in St. Charles County. Photo: Lisa Mandel

By Susan Fadem, Special to the Jewish Light

Had Jack Cohen and his wife, Laura, not relocated to St. Charles, they likely would still be attending temple only on the High Holidays.

Instead, because of the street where they moved and the neighbors they met, Jack Cohen is being honored as a founder, officer, board member, teacher, innovator and ongoing source of inspiration at B’nai Torah in St. Charles County.

The Cohens were among the Reform synagogue’s seven founding families. “I really believe that these things that happen are God’s wishes,” Jack Cohen says.

A now-retired engineer who relocated from California to Florida and then, in 1975, to Missouri, Cohen wound up in St. Charles, just two houses down the street from Mike and Rita Michelson.

Spotting the Jewish name on the mailbox, the Michelsons introduced themselves. They invited the Cohens, 27 years ago, to join them and others in founding a temple for the mostly unaffiliated Jews in St. Charles County. Except for “a wonderful interlude” of temple membership in California, Jack says, his frequent synagogue attendance ended with his bar mitzvah.

B’nai Torah changed all that. As Larry Comensky, another of the temple’s founders and, until recently, the synagogue’s spiritual leader, would tell Cohen: “There’d be no B’nai Torah without you.” Cohen would tell him the same thing.

Their Jewish purpose in life, the two men agreed, was to make sure that B’nai Torah survived for future generations.

Even with a schism last year, B’nai Torah members have remained steadfast in their mission. Of the split, Cohen says: “I picked our brightest natural leader to be my successor. He was a natural leader. He led seven families (and in their midst, two-thirds of the board members) out of B’nai Torah.”

These families started their own house of Jewish worship, Ahavat Shalom, also in St. Charles County. At the time, B’nai Torah’s membership dipped to some 27 families. Membership has now climbed to 35 families, Cohen says.

From the start, B’nai Torah’s founders initiated a student-led service on Sundays, at the beginning of Sunday school. All pupils participate. Those too young to read carry miniature Torahs in a procession. During Sunday school, at least one parent of each student is required to stay and may enroll in the temple’s Sunday morning Hebrew class and/or an adult discussion that Cohen helps lead.

By asking questions and having others do likewise, Cohen helps draw students of all ages into the conversation.

In the “Miracle or No Miracle” approach that Cohen pioneered, students discuss topics they may have covered in public school. Pupils might already know, for example, about evaporation, condensation and how water comes back as rain.

For a spiritual dimension, Cohen interjects that “we’re drinking the same water today that was present when God created the water.” To understand this concept, Cohen asks, “Is this a miracle or not a miracle?”

Through his grant writing and fundraising efforts, Cohen has helped his congregation purchase and pay off the mortgage on a onetime church they transformed into their temple’s home, plant gardens inspired by those in the Bible, stage performances through the temple’s Aliyah Theatre, and expand the temple’s library with selections by students.

Cohen, who also helps put out the temple newsletter and compile Yahrzeit lists, scarcely thinks of the time involved. “It’s totally satisfying to do these projects. When you’re working with other Jews, it’s totally rewarding,” says Cohen, who is also a trustee of the St. Louis Jewish Light. Each Tuesday, he broadens his own Torah and Talmud knowledge by studying at St. Louis Kollel.

Of his many temple endeavors, Cohen says the most satisfying has been fundraising to restore B’nai Torah’s Holocaust Torah.

Following Hitler’s orders, Nazis burned synagogues but dumped over 1,500 salvaged Torahs into a basement in what was then Czechoslovakia. Hitler’s intent was to someday create a “Museum of the Extinct Jewish People.”

After World War II, a philanthropist bought these Torahs to restore and place on permanent loan to congregations.

At the advice of Rabbi Howard Kaplansky, Cohen and his temple acquired a Holocaust Torah. After using it for 22 years, its letters were falling off the parchment. So the St. Charles County congregation borrowed another Torah from Beth Shalom in Columbia, Mo. Five years later, B’nai Torah learned that its Holocaust Torah could be restored for a maximum of $15,000.

Cohen and temple treasurer Lenny Baer spent hundreds of hours and drove over 1,000 miles publicizing the restoration effort.

Support from the St. Charles Interfaith Partnership and donations from churches, temples, synagogues, foundations, and individuals of all faiths helped put them over their goal. With a Saturday morning service led by B’nai Torah’s Rabbi Dale Schreiber, an open house and an original song by Andrew Bollinger, the return of the Holocaust Torah was celebrated five months ago.

“The whole thing was just phenomenal,” says Cohen. Fellow congregants might say the same thing about him.

Jack Cohen

AGE:  76

FAMILY:  Married for 36 years to Laura, two daughters and one grandson

HOME: St. Peters

OCCUPATION:  A retired engineer and a founder of B’nai Torah congregation in St. Charles County.

FUN FACT:  Jack and Laura try to play at least one Scrabble match daily. They’ve both had 500-point scores and routinely earn at least 300 points each,  per game.