Have You Met?

Rabbi Daniel Cohen arrived in Denver about two years ago to become head Rabbi at BMH-BJ Synagogue. The congregation is a merger of two traditional and modern orthodox communities with over 800 member families.

Rabbi Cohen was ordained in New York where he and his wife, Diane, were married while he was still a student. “After ordination, we spent a year in Israel during the Gulf War. The trip was kind of our honeymoon. It was an inspiring time, a pretty scary time, a very special time. We had to put on gas masks and go into sealed rooms during bombing raids. But, we stayed nevertheless.”

Rabbi Cohen spent four years in New Jersey as an assistant Rabbi. His first pulpit was in a much smaller synagogue in West Hartford, Connecticut where he spent about seven years. “I was looking for something much larger and I got a call to come to Denver, that it might be a good match.” The family has been in Denver for about two years now and really enjoys the community. “I’m very happy, I enjoy working at the synagogue; there are a lot of good people here and I think the community has a good growth opportunity. We’ve received a warm welcome here.

Denver’s Jewish population is much smaller than many of the cities in the East. One of the biggest challenges for the Rabbi is going out to dinner. “I keep kosher. Ideally, in the Jewish practice, one should observe the laws of keeping kosher wherever one happens to be. Obviously, in a city like Denver that doesn’t have a huge Jewish community it’s limited because there aren’t many kosher restaurants. I eat at home, other peoples homes but we don’t eat out a lot. There’s only a couple of kosher restaurants, the East Side Deli and a small pizza place called Pete’s Pizza. So, I can have pizza for breakfast and deli for dinner.”

Rabbi Cohen’s long-term goal is to be a transformational Jewish leader. “I always want to feel that wherever I am, I’m making a difference in changing people’s lives. It’s not that I feel that I need to achieve xyz for the definition of success but it’s more the journey. I want to feel that I’m making a difference.”

As the oldest of a family of six children, Rabbi Cohen has many memories to share. “We played Popeye and Brutus. I was always Popeye and my brother was Brutus. He’d get messed around a bit but we were ok.” His sister tells him that he reverts back to a child when he gets around her, always teasing and acting different. “I think you go back to your childhood times when you’re with your siblings. It’s a feeling of safety. You become a little bit of a kid again.” Two of his special memories are those involving his parents. “My mother was always there to take us to school. I remember the first day in first grade, getting into the wrong car for carpool and the parent telling me, ‘You’re in the wrong car.’ From then on, I always made sure I was in the right one. One afternoon when I was in elementary school, I was in the car with my mom on our way to the library. It was raining, really pouring down, and I remember having this tremendous sense of security just being in the car with her and the rest of my brothers and sisters. It’s a real warm memory.”

“My favorite “dad” memory is a vision I have when I was about seven years old of being pulled through this dark alley at night. We were on our way to a rally to help free Soviet Jews. I think about it now and believe it was one of the sources for inspiration that my dad and mom gave me, that sense of responsibility for people that are less fortunate and in need. At the time, I didn’t know or understand what I was doing but it was the experience of knowing that it was obviously important. Just being with my father at the rally, walking by his side, I think made a big difference in my life.

How did you decide to become a Rabbi? I always knew growing up that I wanted to be educated Jewishly. I wanted to be Rabbi at least to the extent that it would give me a certain degree of formal Jewish education. I grew up in a home that was in tune with positive Jewish experiences, expressing a value for people wherever they were at in the religious spectrum. I always felt a sense of communal responsibility. I wasn’t committed to it until I got involved in Jewish youth work and I felt a real sense of fulfillment and satisfaction. I realized I could only be good at something if I devoted myself fully to it and I gravitated to the Rabbinate. It was a realization that I was good at it; I was good at teaching and communicating with people and I had grown up with a tremendous sense of pride in that profession, being dedicated to the Jewish people.

What’s important in your life? Family, personal development and Judaism.

What’s in your future? Raising children and raising Jews.

What are your volunteer activities? Israel activism and activities highlighting Divine Spirit in all mankind.

Which social event is your favorite? An afternoon in the park with my family and ballgames. If you want a gala…it’s the Mask event.

Favorite restaurant? East Side Deli. It’s the only kosher restaurant in town.

Who is the most interesting celebrity you have ever met? Nathan Sharansky, a Soviet Refusenik, who is a Jewish hero and a symbol of the national awakening of Jewishness and Zionism in Russia. George Bush… I was invited with Jay Kamlet to attend the Hanukah party at the White House.

If your life were a movie, whom would you want to play your part? Matthew Broderick. He’s an adventuresome guy, kind of a sweet guy, a thinking guy and he seems to be one-step ahead of the rest.

Do you have any pets? No.

When you move, what will your home tell its next owner about you? I’m organized and I love life.

What word describes you best? Upbeat.

How would you like others to describe you? Principled and passionate.

What was your first job? I was a camp counselor at a Jewish camp in the Catskills (Swan Lake, New York).

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself? Procrastination.

What trait do you most deplore in others? Lack of openness to growth

What is your greatest indulgence? My wife’s baked goods.

What type of clothes do you like? Hip and cool.

What’s the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning? Thank God that I’m alive.

What’s the last thing you do before bed? Shema (A Jewish prayer affirming our belief in God).

Favorite comfort food? Mint chocolate chip ice cream.

Tell me something about yourself that people would be surprised to know about you. I’m not always passionate about personal performance of the Jewish rituals.

What is the best gift you have ever given? Myself to my children; a smile bringing joy to other people.

What is the best gift you’ve received? My wife and my parents love.

What or who is the greatest love in your life? Diane, my wife.

What is your current state of mind? Reflective.

What do you consider your greatest achievement? Having menschettes (my girls).

What is your most treasured possession? An Israeli Air force baseball cap. About 100 individuals from Denver went on a mission to Israel. Part of that mission was taking a Torah scroll from our synagogue and dedicating it at the Israel Air force base. We carried it wherever we went and then took it to an air force base outside of TelAviv. It was one of the most uplifting experiences of my entire life because it’s the Torah that unites the Jewish people all over the world. God gave Moses and the Jewish people the Torah thousands of years ago. When we got to the air force base, we were welcomed by men and women with such a sense of joy and connection that we realized that we were one Jewish people despite the geographic divide. At the end of the day, one of the members of the Israel Air force gave me a baseball hat as a sign of their gratitude to all of us from Denver, Colorado. I treasure that hat a lot. Once I misplaced it and I was going nuts trying to find it. I wear it with pride wherever I go.

What is the quality you most like in a man? Principles and leadership.

What is the quality you most like in a woman? Honesty and openness.

Favorite books/writers? The Torah, written by God

What is the best advice you have ever received? Torah is an eternal guide for life. Ninety percent of the decisions in life can be found in the Torah.

Do you have a motto? Don’t just “keep the faith”, spread it around.

What’s the funniest thing that’s happened to you? I had never done a circumcision in my life. About two months ago, I had a circumcision to go to, which was taking place on one of the Jewish fast days. Jewish law teaches us that if you’re part of a celebration of a circumcision, you don’t have to fast that day because you’re part of a joyous event. You have to make it up on a different day, but on that day, you can eat. There are three individuals that don’t have to make up the fast day, the father of the child, the person that holds the baby during the circumcision, or the Mohel, who performs the circumcision. I wasn’t the father, the grandfather had been given the honor of holding the baby and the only other option was to actually circumcise the child. The Mohel came to me and said, “Rabbi, I’ve already done a bris this morning so I don’t have to fast, you do the circumcision.” The father overhears and freaks out. We nod at the father, meanwhile the Mohel says, “I’ll set this up for you.” It becomes the moment of truth, I say to myself, “Either I fast or I cut’ so I said, ‘I’m cutting’ and everything came off ok. Thank God, it turned out well. I was privileged.”

If you could come back in another lifetime, what/who would you like to be? And why? Abraham. He changed the world.

What are your hobbies? Other interests? Running, tennis, magic, leadership study, reading and learning.

Who is your mentor? My dad. He is a great role model and is very optimistic and persistent. Dad is a Rabbi in Denver and is the Dean of Torah at Denver Academy.

What would you most like to be remembered for? As a devoted father, husband and leader of Jewish people.

If you could go anywhere and do anything, what would it be? I’d like to take a trip around the world and write a book.

What do you like about the town you live in? The people and the natural environment.