Arrivals: A 100% kosher Jew

Profile of Andrea Cohen, 29, who moved from Daytona Beach, Florida, to Sderot in 2011.

Andrea Cohen and her husband Asaf – from a Sicilian-American family to a Jewish family in Sderot (photo credit: Courtesy)
Andrea Cohen and her husband Asaf – from a Sicilian-American family to a Jewish family in Sderot
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Take a 19-year-old Catholic girl from a Sicilian-American family. Add a post-army Israeli selling beach towels, swim suits and inflatable toys in Florida. The result is a Jewish family of six living in Sderot. To understand how that kind of equation is possible, you’d have to go back to Andrea Cohen’s childhood.
“I was always was fascinated with Jews and the story of the Holocaust,” she recalls.
“As soon as I learned how to read, I started picking up books about the Holocaust. I gave my friend a copy of The Diary of Anne Frank for a Christmas present, and her mom was really upset. She thought it was weird and creepy. I was Holocaust-obsessed from the age of eight until about 13. My favorite movie was Life is Beautiful.”
Her own mother, she says, “thought it was strange. She used to ask me, ‘Why are you thinking of it all the time? It isn’t connected to you.’ Eventually, becoming a teenager took over. I dropped the interest because it was getting depressing.”
From a religious standpoint, she continues, “I always felt close to God, but I refused to do my confirmation.
Something about the Catholic religious rituals wasn’t sitting right with me. I couldn’t put my finger on it. My house was full of pictures of Jesus and crosses on every wall. The women in my family knew all about rituals, but they weren’t educated Catholics.”
AT AGE 19, while enrolled in a course to become a flight attendant, she met Asaf Cohen, a 26-year-old Israeli who was working at a store in Daytona Beach. Andrea always knew she wanted to marry a God-fearing man. Although he didn’t keep Shabbat at the time, her future husband had grown up in a traditional Jewish home in Sderot. When they met, he kept kosher and prayed with tefillin. Despite the differences in age, background, religion and native language, the pair fell in love, dated for two years and got married in a civil ceremony.
After the birth of their first child, a son, Andrea’s Catholic roots resurfaced.
“In my family, we baptize kids, so I wanted to do that. But my husband said, ‘No way!’” In fact, Asaf started to face a lot of pressure to divorce his non-Jewish wife.
But their now-entwined lives were destined for something else entirely.
Around the time of their oldest son’s birth, Andrea attended a lecture by Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi that caused her to question her Christian beliefs. “I ended up believing that my whole life was a lie. I had been praying to a false god my whole life.”
The birth of their son and her revelation about her beliefs unsettled the young family. She spent the next few days in tears, wondering how they were going to live. Conversion was problematic, because her husband is a kohen, descended from the ancient Jewish priests, and forbidden to marry a convert. For years Asaf had not been called to the Torah at synagogue because he was married to a non-Jew. They knew their children would not be admitted to Jewish schools.
The easiest path was to forget all about religion and choose to live a completely secular life. But Andrea was not content with that solution. Instead, she turned in prayer to the God she had always believed in.
Thoughts about checking into her Sicilian roots came to her, unbidden.
The messages were vague, and she was stymied about how to proceed, but she was drawn to investigate family names.
In addition, she had a memory of a ritual her great-grandmother used to get rid of the evil eye. At one point, she made a promise to God: “Tell me I’m Jewish, and I’ll give my whole self to being an observant Jew. Otherwise, I’ll leave my husband and convert.”
She recalls that “at the beginning, I didn’t know what I was looking for. I called all these rabbis in Italy and said, ‘I think I’m Jewish. What do I do?’ One rabbi connected me to a Jewish genealogist in Italy named Nardo Bonomi Braverman. I explained my situation, and he said he could help, but there was a cost.”
In a miracle that would repeat itself several times, the Cohens’ tax refund came in exactly when they needed it to pay Braverman’s expenses. Searching in church archives, Braverman found 11 generations of matrilineal descent in Andrea’s family. All the names were Jewish names. He was able to prove that her Jewish family had been persecuted during the Inquisition.
With this evidence in hand, she spent four painfully difficult, frustrating years appealing to rabbinical courts between Florida and New York, in an attempt to get her Jewishness officially recognized. All roads led to brick walls, and tears.
After multiple disheartening and ultimately failed attempts to get a ruling on her status in the US, someone in Asaf’s family was able to connect them with Rabbi Shlomo Amar, the former Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel. One day in early 2011, four years after beginning the journey to reclaim her Jewish roots, the couple waited up until 4 a.m. for a ruling from the Rabbinical High Court in Jerusalem. The court finally made its decision: According to Jewish law, Andrea was, and had always been, a 100-percent kosher Jew.
Now that her Jewish status was confirmed, the couple had to have a Jewish wedding. Once again, their tax refund came at just the right time, and in three days, they planned a beautiful, intimate wedding in a synagogue in Miami.
IN APRIL 2011, once the Cohens were married according to Jewish law, it was time to make a decision about leaving the US.
“After all this, I understood that my soul had waited so many centuries to get back to this place. I must do it. I also wanted to bring my kids up in a place where being a Jew would be easier. And my husband, who grew up in Sderot, was ready to go home.”
They made aliya to Sderot on September 11, 2011. Since then, Andrea has given birth to two daughters, and Asaf is training to be an electrician while doing renovations.
Andrea skipped formal ulpan and is learning Hebrew from her husband’s family. She started by learning the words for kitchen items and then built her vocabulary with words related to babies and children.
Making aliya to Sderot is not exactly the path most English-speaking immigrants take.
“Life continues to be an interesting ride,” Andrea reflects. “We live in Sderot, and there have been two wars since we’ve been here. I’m really at ease because I know this is home, but war makes it confusing for the kids. I don’t doubt that I made the right decision, but my kids don’t understand, because we came from a peaceful place.
Here in Sderot, we have a very special rabbi and we have a very special place in a family. God willing, things should only get better.”
With a laugh, she adds, “My husband says he always thought I was a Jew.”
Turns out, his instinct was 100% right