If, next Father’s Day, you see balloons rising into the sky above Elizabeth, know they might be messages of love from Rabbi Josh Cohen’s four children.
Cohen, a Torah teacher at the Jewish Educational Center’s Rav Teitz Mesivta Academy, died on June 25, at the age of 38. He suffered a neck injury while exercising three years ago that left him in constant pain. He had a severe toxic reaction to a new medication doctors put him on on Mother’s Day, May 13; he suffered a heart attack, went into a coma, and died six weeks later.
In addition to his wife, Johanna, 40, he left Yosef, 11, Temima, nine, Naava, six, and Sima Shifra, four.
“Each of the children has different concerns,” Johanna Cohen said. “My middle daughter asked if they would still be able to celebrate Father’s Day. I said, ‘Sure. You can write messages on balloons and let them float up into the sky, and Daddy will get them.’ I could see her relax when she thought about that.”
The children miss their father acutely, she said, but during the day they are busy and happy. Thanks to offers of scholarships, they are all in summer camp, the younger two at the YM-YWHA of Union County, Yosef at Gan Israel in Morristown, and Temima at Camp Chaveiros in Highland Park.
Cohen told NJ Jewish News that was just part of the extraordinary kindness shown to her by the community as a whole. “I can’t believe how amazing people have been,” she said. “I’ve just needed to say, ‘I need X,’ and someone has been there ready to help. It has been a really beautiful experience, even at such an awful time.”
She said, “I don’t want my children’s lives to be defined by the loss of their father. This enables me to show them something positive, to say to them, ‘This is what people are like on the inside.’ So many parents have opened their arms to them, and nothing could comfort me more.”
In an e-mail to NJ Jewish News she wrote, “I was particularly touched that Jani Kovacs-Jonas, the program director at the Y, called [while Josh was in hospital] to ask if there was anything the Y could do, and offered camp, free of charge, to all my children. They also offered to let my eight-year-old niece go for two weeks while my sister was here helping me. My two younger children are now attending the Y summer camp and having a wonderful summer despite everything. Their counselors have been so supportive of them, and I believe that the structure that the Y has provided has made a huge difference in their well-being at this difficult time.
“The Y doesn’t just say that they are a community center,” Cohen wrote, “they really mean it! They came to my assistance (without my even asking) during the worst time of my life, and they are helping two young orphans deal with their father’s death.”
Jonas said, “We knew Josh well because he worked with us as a learning specialist for several years. I knew that they would need a place for the kids over the summer, whatever the outcome. I was hoping for a good outcome, but as it turned out, it was even more important that they have this support.”
Cohen also mentioned the tribute ad placed in NJJN by what was then the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey. She said, “I was touched and surprised, and am saving it with our other precious mementos of Josh’s life.”
Her husband would have been profoundly appreciative if he could have seen how much support she has received. “It was very different when he lost his own father when he was six,” Cohen said. “They lived here, in Elizabeth, but it was a very different time. He really had to cope alone.”
That hardship left him with a profound sense of gratitude. That was part of what attracted Johanna, who is a social worker by training. She grew up in a Conservative home in Boston, and became Orthodox as a student at Yale. She was introduced to Josh by a friend. Talking on the phone, before they ever met face to face, she knew they were meant for each other.
“I loved his outlook, and view of religion, and the fact that he wanted to be a teacher and a rabbi. And we had exactly the same sense of humor. He wasn’t at all xenophobic. He loved engaging with all different kinds of people.”
“We’re lucky,” she said. “We had such good years together and had four great kids.”
To help the children remember their dad, she is compiling an “encyclopedia” and has asked everyone who knew him to contribute material.
“It’s such a loss,” she said, dipping just briefly. “I hate that he is gone. He had so much to offer.”
Rabbi Elazar M. Teitz, the dean of the JEC in Elizabeth, married Josh and Johanna 13 years ago, and he was her husband’s spiritual leader. He said Kaddish for Josh at their home.
Contacted by e-mail in Israel, Teitz wrote back about Josh: “As a teacher and as a person, he strove for the maximum; ‘good enough’ was not a term he accepted, when better could be achieved — by his students, by the school, and by himself.
“His dedication and sense of responsibility were attested to by the fact that despite a painful and debilitating physical condition, he rarely was absent, overcoming the pain to fulfill his obligations.”