MONTREAL — Baruch Cohen has always cringed when Frederick Krantz, his admiring younger boss at the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research (CIJR), calls him tzaddik, or righteous one.
Baruch Cohen, left, is feted on his 90th birthday by well-wisher Frederick Krantz, founder and director of the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research.
But Cohen, a gentleman of the old school, had to admit that he is now truly a tzaddik, not by claiming any superior morality or wisdom, rather because he has reached the age of 90, and according to Jewish tradition, that means he’s a tzaddik.
About 100 people came out for a surprise birthday party for Cohen, who is officially CIJR’s research chair but to many in that organization and well beyond, is a figure of inspiration for his learning and dedication and qualities of kindness, courage and good humour. It was an outpouring of love, from young and old, who have found in him an elder statesman, a father/grandfather figure, and a Jewish patriarch in the best sense, someone who has overcome adversity and tragedy.
Cohen has worked five days a week, every week, at CIJR since its founding 21 years ago, entirely as a volunteer, and as his son-in-law, MNA Lawrence Bergman, noted, he also takes work home on the weekend.
The celebration was not a swan song. Cohen has no intention of reducing his workload anytime soon. And he wasn’t comfortable with the parade of tributes. “I was strongly against this type of celebration. It’s not my style,” he later said.
His work includes poring over numerous newspapers and other publications each day to select articles about the Middle East and Jewish world for CIJR’s e-mailed Isranet briefings and archives. He’s a prolific and elegant writer himself, contributing not only to CIJR’s publications, but several others, including The CJN, in a language that is not his first or even second.
He has also mentored successive waves of student interns and other young people in taking pride in their Jewish heritage and the necessity of advocating for the State of Israel.
The Bucharest-born Cohen has also worked tirelessly in the field of Holocaust remembrance, especially in raising awareness of the hundreds of thousands of Jews killed in Romania and neighbouring Transnistria. He organizes an annual commemoration and is a longtime docent at the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre.
Krantz, a Concordia University professor, first became aware of Cohen in 1987-88, during the first intifadah. Krantz noticed Cohen’s incisive letters in local daily newspapers that pointed out media bias against Israel in their coverage. Krantz had also been doing some writing in the same vein and contacted Cohen.
Cohen had retired from his job as a company’s financial officer and was pursuing a master’s degree in Concordia’s Jewish studies program. Cohen, Krantz and a few other academics became the nucleus of the CIJR.
Krantz recounted that Cohen survived the repression of Romania’s wartime fascist tyranny, pogroms and labour camps and the loss of relatives and friends, and, after the war, the Communist regime.
He and wife, Sonia (to whom he has been now married for 66 years), and young daughter Malka (Monica) fled to Israel, where they lived for awhile before coming to Montreal where Sonia’s mother and sister lived.
“I came to respect Baruch’s incredible intellect, moral authority, inexhaustible energy and dry sense of humour that he regularly exhibits,” Krantz said.
No wonder he came to regard him as a great friend and “my personal tzaddik,” someone who combines “sweetness and tenacity” with “charm and determination.”
Speakers also remembered how Cohen and his wife have weathered the loss of their only child, Monica, who died almost 10 years ago.
“Through his life and work, Baruch embodies Jewish courage, Jewish truth-seeking and the will to live. He has overcome tragedy, yet always looked to the future,” Krantz said.
Bergman, who reverently calls him “our saba,” said Cohen hates to miss a day at the office. “Sometimes, when the weather is bad or it’s icy, I call Sonia at 7:30 in the morning and say maybe he better stay home. But she will say he has already left for the bus.”
Mount Royal MP Irwin Cotler called Cohen “a great hero of our community and beyond, a great son of the Jewish people, an incredibly devoted and inspirational public servant… whom I utterly revere.”
CIJR board member Evelyn Schachter summed it up: “He looks like 70, has the energy of 65, and the drive, discipline and curiosity of someone a third of his age.”
Academic council member Harold Waller dubbed Cohen the “spark plug” that makes the CIJR work. “He’s constantly upbeat and positive about the future despite his communal and personal experiences.”
New CIJR assistant director Josh Peters, who was previously the archivist, said that he comes in at 8:30 a.m. and Cohen is always there before him.
Among the congratulatory messages was one from Aviva Raz Schechter, a former Israeli consul in Montreal and now head of the Foreign Affairs Ministry’s department of anti-Semitism and Holocaust issues.
At the end of it all, an overwhelmed Cohen said he was “very touched and very tired,” and he thanked Krantz for his friendship and “what he has taught me.”
Donations in Cohen’s honour were made to the Baruch Cohen Israel Advocacy Student Fund.