Jerusalemite on loan

The long-serving Haifa chief rabbi has deep roots in the Holy City.

shear yashuv cohen 298  (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
shear yashuv cohen 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
'I still remember the day the British left the Old City," says Haifa Chief Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen. "From our outposts we heard Scottish bagpipes playing and the marching of many soldiers on the cobblestones gradually fading away. We realized we were on our own. Immediately we took over their strategic sites, but the Arab Legion also grabbed what they could." Cohen, the son of the renowned Nazir, Rabbi David Cohen, was raised as a nazirite along with his sister, Tzofia. As described in the Torah, this meant his hair was never cut, he did not drink wine nor eat grapes and didn't attend funerals. At l6 he was given rabbinic sanction to cease being a nazirite, but continues to this day to be a strict vegetarian. He was born in 1927 in Jerusalem, received a traditional education and attended Mercaz Harav Yeshiva, where he became close with Rabbi Yehuda Zvi Kook. He also joined the Hagana and was a member of Brit Hahashmonaim, an organization associated with the Irgun. In l948 he accompanied the battalions that brought food and weapons to beleaguered Jerusalem and Gush Etzion. Eventually he was sent with a group of young religious soldiers to the Jewish Quarter, where for seven months they defended the Jewish population and worked with the youth. Cohen was appointed cultural attach by his commanding officer, Moshe Rusnak, and was rabbi of the unit while at the same time he was in charge of defending the Nissim Bak Synagogue and the surrounding area. The tide of the battle for the Old City changed for the worse, and for two weeks the Hagana forces held out against the better armed and more numerous British-trained Arab Legionnaires. "We retreated as more and more posts were blown up. Eventually most of the huddled citizens and the few soldiers we had left were gathered in the four Sephardi synagogues, surrounded on all sides by Arab forces. On the l9th of Iyar, after negotiating with the officers of the Arab Legion, Moshe Rusnak, accompanied by the two chief rabbis of the Jewish Quarter, signed a surrender pact. The Old City fell," says Cohen, who celebrated his 80th birthday in November. On Friday afternoon the citizens were evacuated through Zion Gate and brought to abandoned houses in Katamon. The Jewish fighting forces were taken into captivity. Cohen was wounded in the knee and could not be evacuated, however. He remained in an Armenian church basement together with the other severely injured and the dead for another day or two, even as an Arab mob began rioting, looting and burning the Jewish Quarter. When the unruly crowd got too close, it was decided to take the wounded out of the city walls altogether. He remembers being evacuated on a stretcher through Lion's Gate, together with the Jewish doctors and nurses who remained with the wounded, and then to an Arab hospital where they wanted to amputate his leg. He refused point blank, and was sent by stretcher to Amman and then to the makeshift prisoner's camp in the Jordanian desert where his comrades were already imprisoned, along with Jewish captives from Gush Etzion and the Naharayim hydroelectric station. "When I arrived at the camp it was Shavuot," he recalls. "The camp was very well organized. There were something like 10 minyanim [congregations] and each one had its own Torah scroll. The prisoners organized themselves into working teams, learning groups, diplomatic representatives to talk with the authorities and innovators who manufactured everything that was needed in the camp out of junk and ingenuity." There they remained, from May until December, and there he underwent treatment for his leg - he still limps, but blesses the fact that he can walk at all. That Hanukka the prisoners were repatriated and joined their families. Cohen remained in the army until 1953. He then became rabbi of the airforce, a post he would hold for one year. In quick succession he got an MA degree in law from the Hebrew University and wrote a number of papers on rabbinic and secular legal issues. He was appointed the president of the Harry Fischel Rabbinical Institute, and heads the Ariel Institute of Torah, Judaism and Society in Bayit Vagan and in Haifa. During the Sinai Campaign, he volunteered and served as army rabbi for the battalion that crossed the Suez, and remained active in IDF affairs thereafter. From 1955 to 1973, Cohen was also a member of the Jerusalem city council, representing the National Religious Party. In l967 when the Six Day War broke out, he was deputy mayor of Jerusalem under Teddy Kollek. "I could practically watch the fighting in the eastern part of the city from my office in the municipality," he says. "I made one of the army officers in charge swear that he would get me as soon as it was possible to enter the Old City, and so he did." According to Cohen, as the paratroopers ran through the lanes of ancient Jerusalem to the Temple Mount, the officer, remembering his promise, invited him to the Western Wall to join IDF chief rabbi Shlomo Goren (Cohen's brother-in-law), Rabbi Kook and Rabbi David Cohen, the deputy mayor's father. "I had come full circle," he says with emotion. "I was the last Jew to leave the Old City of Jerusalem after it fell, and the first to return." How then, does it turn out that he became the chief rabbi of Haifa 32 years ago, a city considered to be one of the more secular towns of Israel? Literally, he was recommended to take the post in l975 by a friend who had been with him in the Jordanian prisoners' camp, Yosef Blustein, then the director of the Haifa Electric Company. But Cohen saw the task as a challenge, one that he has lived up to most successfully. He developed a special approach to spiritual leadership suited to the city in which he works. "I don't divide Jews into religious and secular. To me they are all Jews. I don't believe in coercive religion; only in open communications and in hasbara [teaching]." Because of his unique dialogue with the various communities of Haifa, Cohen was awarded the Tolerance Prize in l99l. He is also one of the few Orthodox rabbis who is engaged in interfaith dialogue. He has met with leaders of every major religion and is chairman of a committee for Vatican - Chief Rabbinate relationships, and lately has become more involved in dialogue between Jewish and Islamic religious leaders. Cohen is married to Naomi, an American-born doctor of philosophy who was a lecturer at the Tel Aviv, Bar-Ilan and Haifa universities. They have one daughter, Eliraz, and six grandchildren. On Jerusalem Day, when the country commemorated the capital's fifth decade of reunification, Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen, one of its dedicated sons, celebrated with his beloved community even though he has been lent out "temporarily" to Haifa.