Birmingham Celebrates 25 Years of Couple’s Jewish Service

Thursday, 12 August, 2010 - 12:01 pm

MRIq4637997.jpgWhen Rabbi Fishel and Esther Cohen came to Birmingham, England, in 1984, neither had any idea what the future would hold.

He, a young Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi fresh out of school, had been asked to become the area’s first full-time university chaplain for the Midlands Region, providing religious and pastoral support to Jewish students attending universities in Birmingham, Warwick, Woverhampton, Derby, Coventry, Loughborough, Leicester and Nottingham. She, barely 20 years old, faced her own challenges in building a home and Jewish center far from her family in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Among the roadblocks was confronting a dearth of kosher facilities; running out of staples such as milk or bread was not an option.

“I was determined to make it work,” said Esther Cohen, who with her husband directs campus activities. “I learned how to plan in advance, and the community was very welcoming.”

Ask locals, and they’ll tell you that over the last 25 years, the Cohens have done more than “make it work.” Together, they’ve touched the lives of thousands of students, many of whom still regard the couple as friends.

More than 200 students, alumni, colleagues, friends and family members came out to show their support at a dinner held earlier this year. Sponsored by the Midlands Region Chaplaincy Board, the event honored the Cohens’ quarter-century of service.

Speaking after the dinner, Esther Cohen said that from day one, they focused on finding ways to help Jewish students, many of whom were away from home for the first time, cope with the various challenges of university life. They sought to establish innovative programs and activities with the goal of building a sense of community.

“We were always arranging events,” she related. “Our goal was to create a home away from home. Students would come to us when they were panicking about exams. Sometimes they would knock on our door at midnight to borrow some milk.”

Mendy Cohen, one of the couple’s four sons, compared the constant bustle of his childhood home in England to Grand Central Station in New York City, where he now resides.

“There were always students around,” he said. “It was like a second home to many of them.”

It wasn’t uncommon for the Cohens to prepare enough food for a Shabbat dinner for 20 guests when, without warning, 40 would show up.

“My mother would just make more salads and put up more tables,” said Cohen.

Esther Cohen started teaching and later earned a degree in counseling. In addition to assisting Fishel Cohen with his chaplaincy duties, she also serves as head of religious education at the King David School and runs her own clinic, Kadimah Counseling Service. She said that the research she conducted as part of her course work on the psychological needs of Jewish students was invaluable.

“It gave us both a very strong awareness of what students need,” she said. “There is a skill in working with them and not telling them what to do.”

Over the years, the Cohens’ programs ran the gamut of themes. In addition to their weekly Shabbat dinners and holiday events, they continue to host open houses during exam season, inviting students to drop in between study sessions for a home-cooked meal. Among their new projects is “Esther’s Café,” a group of 50 students who gather at a local Hillel House for a regular address by an educational speaker.

“We aim to create a new event every term,” said Cohen. “We’ve had camping trips. Fishel drove a mini bus filled with students to Scotland. It was a lot of fun.”

Holly Kilim, who attended Birmingham University from 2004 to 2009, met the Cohens during her third year of medical school.

“Until that point I wasn’t really involved in the Jewish scene at the university,” said Kilim, who now lives in Boston with her husband, Daniel Broniatowski. “With their warm hearts and non-judgmental attitude they both created a loving and nurturing environment for me to learn and grow, both Jewishly and personally. I will always remember Fishel coming to kosher the kitchen in my apartment, at my request, and the image of him standing there holding a blow torch to my kitchen taps.”

Kilim and her fiancé studied with the Cohens for several weeks before their wedding in London. Fishel Cohen officiated at the ceremony.

“I always thought that it was endearing, the way they referred to this time as ‘learning with us,’ rather than teaching us,” said Kilim. “I think this is a perfect example of the way they approach their work, not from the top down, but from an equal footing that they share with everyone.”

Louise Weinberg, a Birmingham student in 1995, has fond memories of all-night cooking sessions and lively holiday meals.

“I saw them open their home 24/7 to all who wanted or needed, and their home became my home,” said Weinberg, who lives in Manchester, but still maintains a close relationship with the couple. “When I recently gave birth to twins at 29 weeks, they drove through the night to be by the hospital.”

From their vantage point in the Midlands, the Cohens have witnessed Jewish life change in this corner of England. The Jewish student population, which was about 200 when they arrived, has grown to more than 2,000. To accommodate their growing needs, Fishel Cohen, who acts as a student advocate with administrations, fought to bring kosher food to Birmingham and Nottingham.

For his part, he said that he tries to visit as many students as possible in order to reach the unaffiliated. Esther Cohen, meanwhile, is a regular in the student library during midterms, distributing packages of homemade chocolate cake with “good luck” tags attached.

And they still deal with the age-old problems of homesickness and pre-exam jitters. The economy, they asserted, has only placed more pressure on students.

“It used to be that you got a degree and were fairly certain to get a job,” said Cohen. “Now even a degree from a good school doesn’t guarantee that.”

Looking to the future, she predicted that Jewish life in the area would continue to grow.

“Life is unpredictable,” she said, “but we hope to carry on and keep growing. The more we give, the more we get back. We’re so full of energy, we want to expand.”


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