Linda: When Charlie and I left the home of Rachel and Nehemia Cohen after our first interview with them, we agreed that we would never again complain that we were too busy or that we didn’t have enough time for something. And years later, we’ve kept our word. Nehemia, or Rabbi Nehemia as he is known to his congregation and his wife Rachel, give new meaning to the metaphor of having a lot on your plate. The parents of twelve children, ages five to twenty-five, their personal and social responsibilities and commitments are greater than the average couple can even begin to imagine.
Rabbi Cohen is more than the spiritual leader of his congregation; he is viewed by his community as a source of guidance, wisdom and help to all who call on him. His congregation is not limited to those individuals and families that attend religious services, but includes the entire community. As a longtime member of the Chabad movement the rabbi has committed his life to service. He and Rachel have dedicated themselves to bringing the essential teachings of Judaism into the lives of those who come to them with a desire to find spirituality in a world that seems to many to be becoming increasingly materialistic. Chabad is a Hebrew acronym meaning wisdom and understanding. The movement began in Russia two hundred and fifty years ago and emphasizes the need to reach out to others economically, socially, and spiritually. The Rabbi’s Chabad center serves over twelve thousand people a year.
Nehemia: “Rachel and I were both brought up in the Brooklyn Heights section of New York City, in the midst of a deeply Hassidic lifestyle. At the time that I met her, I was teaching. We both grew up with a reverence for the teaching of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, whom we all called “The Rebbe.” He was the spiritual guide who formed the identity of thousands. His teachings started the Chabad movement, which sends people all over the world to bring Jews back to Judaism.”
Rachel: “We were brought up in the same kind of religious homes. Both of our fathers were rabbis, and before we even met each other, we both knew that we would choose someone to marry who was committed to living a life of service. We were both grounded in the same value system. When we met, we just had to figure out if the personalities were comfortable enough with each other. As it turned out, that didn’t take me too long. I was only twenty, but I was clear about what I was looking for in a husband. I knew I didn’t want a businessman, or someone whose primary focus in life was about making money. I was looking for a man who was dedicated to spirituality and service. By the time we had our second date, I knew that Nehemia was the one for me, but he needed one more date to be sure. After six weeks, we decided to get married.”
Nehemia: “In our tradition, not only is there no sex before marriage, but no physical contact of any kind; no kissing or hugging or even touching. The purpose is to make sure that the bond is not based on physical attraction alone, or even primarily. It is a hard discipline, but our over-riding commitment has always been to serve God, so we honor the teachings.”
Rachel: “It’s hard to follow the strict rules, but I was committed to building a holy home. I wanted to do everything possible to start on the right foot. Our marriage started on a strong foundation.”
Nehemia: “We have had a purpose for our relationship from the very beginning, and our alignment around this purpose has given rise to a great marriage. Western society has artificially elevated the public sphere of career, money, and social position while devaluing the private spheres of home and family, which traditional Judaism considers of primary importance. Jewish women keep the family together and transmit values to the next generation. We try to live our commitment to practice real Judaism every day, every hour in the home.”
“We are not one of those couples who believe that to be successful, we have to focus on each other. Our marriage is based on a shared goal, a home for our children and grandchildren, and contribution to our community. If the marriage is too focused on the self, it can be too small, and make the people involved selfish. If you feel called to a higher purpose, you do what is commanded, rather than choosing what you want. My grandmother is one hundred and five years old, and she has six hundred descendents. I have cousins all over the world. I have six siblings and there are many rabbis in my family. There is a strong theme running through our family that when there is recognition of a higher purpose, there is a commitment to responsibility that allows you to do things even when you don’t ALWAYS want to.”
Rachel: “I also come from a large family, with five siblings, lots of rabbis, and sisters who are married to rabbis. We both grew up understanding the meaning of sacrifice. Nehemia and I made the decision together that we wanted to work for Chabad. We had thirteen offers of places all over the world that we could go to.”
Nehemia: “Once we chose our location, we were guaranteed two year’s salary by the main Chabad office in New York. When we arrived in our new community, it required a tremendous amount of outreach. I wasn’t sure exactly what to do, so I just got out the phone book and started calling people with Jewish names and invited them to a service. We have a synagogue, but there is no formal membership like a typical synagogue. Ninety percent of the work I do is outside of the synagogue. We have a policy of opening our home on Friday night for Shabbat dinner. Our policy is that you can’t be invited because you’re always invited. You just have to call to firm up a date.”
Rachel: “It is typical for us to have fifteen people at Shabbat dinner. The kids don’t like it when we don’t have a bunch of guests. Having so many children makes it difficult for Nehemia and me to have time to be alone with each other. It is almost impossible for us to vacation together. To get away alone is very rare. I find that from time to time, I’m annoyed that he has to go to work early in the morning because he conducts services every day at 6:30AM, and then has late evening appointments on top of his full day. But it is much easier to clear the annoyance because I know that he is doing good works. He’s not just playing golf. If he calls to say something has come up and that he’ll be later than expected, I find it easier to get over my disappointment because I trust that it must be important.”
Nehemia: “We are actually both doing the good works. Rachael is often home with the children. We find intimacy in what we are doing day-to-day. I try to show that I value all the contributions that Rachael makes.”
Rachel: “I know that if I really needed him, that Nehemia would drop everything that he’s doing to be with me. Last week, I had surgery on both feet. Nehemia took off most of the week to be home to take care of me and the children.”
Nehemia: “We believe in having a balanced life. If you love your work, that’s great. But if you make your job everything, you’re in trouble. Last week, one of the members of the congregation said, “Your public needs you.” I said, “My public needs to see that I am home with my wife who just had surgery. My secretaries all know that when I say I’m not taking any calls, what that really means is that I’m not taking any calls from anyone except my wife.”
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