Arrivals: After a Hollywood career, new adventures beckon in Safed

“I have always let my passions drive me,” says Cohen. “I have always been an adventurous person.”

Susan Cohen, 66 From Brooklyn to Safed, 2019 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Susan Cohen, 66 From Brooklyn to Safed, 2019
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Susan Cohen, managing editor of the brand-new Safed Herald English-language newspaper, only landed in the mystical city less than four months ago.
For 30 years, she worked in Hollywood as a columnist, a feature reporter for various publications, associate producer of the soap opera Search for Tomorrow, and segment producer on The Home Show, a daytime talk show on the air from 1988 to 1994. She dabbled in local politics, developed a youth basketball league for girls and served as media director for the Los Angeles Sparks of the WNBA.
But her ties to Safed actually go back 40 years. Her late parents, Jimmy and Lillian Cohen, moved from Malden, Massachusetts, to Safed in 1979. They were immersed in local affairs such as Ethiopian immigrant absorption and the Edyth Geiger English Library.
Not long after visiting her parents’ graves in Safed last November, Cohen decided to make aliyah and start a new chapter of the Cohen family story in this Upper Galilee city.
“I have always let my passions drive me,” says Cohen. “I have always been an adventurous person.”
In the 1970s, while her parents and siblings and first cousins all were moving to Israel, she moved to Santa Monica and began her professional adventures in the entertainment industry.
“I’ve always been very involved in the Jewish community and Israel has always been a passion of mine,” says the Boston University graduate. “In 1991, I was working for The Home Show on ABC and I convinced my producer to send me to Israel to cover family life during the first Gulf War. I was on the last plane to arrive at Ben-Gurion before they closed the airport for 10 days.”
Armed with a handheld camera and a tripod, she documented what her cousins in Jerusalem’s Old City experienced when the sirens sounded, such as placing their baby in a crib gas mask.
“I didn’t have satellite clearance, so over the course of eight weeks I flew back and forth five times carrying the film to the editing room,” says Cohen, whose name was then Susan Wilson. “People saw these segments all over the country and the response was quite spectacular. I’ve tried very hard, wherever I could, to tell a story about Israel that reflected in a positive way what life was really like here.”
Back in California, her attention turned to basketball simply because her seven-year-old daughter wanted to learn how to play. She jumped into the sport wholeheartedly, learning how to coach. Some of the LA Lakers’ players had children in her league and she became well connected in the sports world.
“My life changed when I discovered basketball,” she reflects. “Hollywood is very much an ‘I’ kind of place. Basketball really changed my approach to be very team-oriented.”
After her daughter was grown, Cohen left the Hollywood rat race. Living in Brooklyn for six years, she involved herself in charitable endeavors.
“I still never really thought about aliyah,” Cohen says. “I had my career and was very happy for a long time. And then, in November of 2018, my nephew in Jerusalem got married and I decided to come for his wedding.”
“From the minute I came on this trip I felt something different,” she explains. “Israel really spoke to me in a way it hadn’t before. At that time, antisemitic attacks were starting to happen everywhere, including in my neighborhood, and it really started to get to me. I started to look at Israel in a different way.”
During that trip, she went to Hebron to speak with one of the local Jewish community’s pioneers, Rabbanit Miriam Levinger. Levinger strongly urged Cohen to come live in Israel as soon as possible, assuring her that she would find a way to make a living.
“It triggered something in my head,” she says. “I was very moved by her and by other people I met. When I went to the airport to go back to the States on the second night of Hanukkah, I put my suitcase down in Ben-Gurion and started to cry. I never wanted to come to Israel again and have to leave.”
She thought about how she could accomplish this goal, and immediately knew she had to come to Safed.
“My parents were very much a part of the fabric of the city,” Cohen says. “At that time there were very few native English-speakers – now there about 3,500 – but I run into people every single day who have a story about my parents. I wanted to live there and find something to do that people would talk about in 40 years the way they talk about my parents.”
To start making her impact on the city, Cohen came up with the idea of establishing the city’s first English community newspaper “that reflects what Safed is in all its diversity.” Lacking capital funds, she went to the publisher of the local Hebrew paper, Hadash B’Galil, and arranged to have the Safed Herald included as a bimonthly insert, in print and online.
That first four-page issue, featuring Cohen’s interview with Mayor Shuki Ohana, came out around Rosh Hashanah and garnered such a positive response that she decided to put out a second issue the following week. For that one, she wrote about the mayor’s wife, who’d never spoken to the press before. Both interviews were conducted in Hebrew even though Cohen is not (yet) fluent.
“Learning Hebrew is extremely important to me,” she says. “I didn’t come here to live like an American. I want to live like an Israeli, so I work on my Hebrew every single day.”
Cohen’s brother and sister don’t live near Safed, but she enjoys a close relationship with the nephew whose wedding brought her there nearly a year ago, Chanan Baer. He and his wife, Shoshana, are accomplished artists living in Safed with their infant.
“From the minute I arrived here, I felt at home,” Cohen says, speaking on the phone from Jerusalem Street in downtown Safed, where passersby were greeting her right and left. She believes the old holy city is undergoing a renaissance under its new mayor, a 16th-generation resident.
“There is so much history here and so much going on today,” Cohen declares. “Being here has reignited the passion I felt in my 20s and 30s. Every day I wake up and feel so enthusiastic about being part of everyday life here.”