I had the wonderful honor and privilege of serving as rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel, the historic Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue of New York. I began as student rabbi in 1969, and went on to become rabbi and senior rabbi. In 2007 I became rabbi emeritus.
During the span of my years at Shearith Israel, I was truly blessed to enjoy the friendship of an amazing group of people. In those days, the congregation was quite diverse, with members of Sephardic and Ashkenazic backgrounds, and with many members born and raised abroad. At kiddush after services on Shabbat mornings, one could hear conversations in Judeo-Spanish, French, Arabic, Dutch, Yiddish, German, Italian...and English. What a remarkable group of people were part of our Shearith Israel family.
One of our members was Ike Cohen, a man of Turkish-Sephardic background. He was one of the most intelligent people I have ever met. He was a thinker, a researcher, a rationalist...original, and even a bit eccentric. He spoke in clear sentences, articulating each word clearly and precisely. He was educated as an engineer, and developed a keen interest in archaeology. He wrote significant works on Stonehenge, on Tutankhamun, and on the Hebrew Bible. He gave a lecture at Shearith Israel some years ago in which he showed slides of ancient Jewish artifacts which were discovered in the American Southwest. Were Jewish explorers here so early in history? Ike thought the evidence clearly showed that indeed Jews were in North America in remote antiquity.
In 1984, he published a book entitled "Darwin Was Wrong: A Study in Probabilities." He wrote: "This book is dedicated to those trained to think scientifically and who are not afraid to reach conclusions dictated by their objective logic--no matter how unpopular the results may temporarily be." This was the operating principle of Ike's work: think scientifically, follow logic, come to independent conclusions.
Ike passed away at the age of 98 (funeral on Auguest 3, 2020).
Rabbis are expected to be teachers to their congregations, and I surely devoted tremendous time and effort trying to fulfill this goal. But it is not often enough realized that rabbis have much to learn from their congregants! When I think of the many synagogue members I have known over the past half century, I rejoice at how much I learned from them in so many ways. And I learned a great deal from Ike Cohen, a man of reason and integrity, a genuine friend.
When I'm at the Shearith Israel sanctuary (and I hope we'll be able to return soon, once the covid 19 pandemic passes), I look around the room and remember the congregants I knew so well and who have now passed away. I visualize them still in their seats in the synagogue. In my mind, I will always see Ike Cohen in the front row, in the northeast men's section. I will see his wry smile and feel his beaming intellect. And I will be grateful for having known him.