Friday, May 24, 2024

Surviving America’s Melting Pot: Rav Moshe Cohen’s Story

From Detroit to Semihy, Hungary

The Cohens, who lived in Detroit in the early 20th century, sounded like a typical Jewish immigrant family. Mr. Cohen came in 1914 from Poland. Only after World War I ended did his wife arrived in 1920 with their five daughters.

Moshe’s parents were amolidige Jews, even though they had not had much of a Jewish education. Mr. Cohen had to go to work at the age of 14 when his father died to help out his family. Throughout his life, he studied Mishnayos and Ein Yaakov. There were no Jewish schools anywhere in Eastern Europe when Moshe’s mother was growing up, but she was saturated with yiras Shomayim. They were strong-minded people with rock-solid emunah.

Mr. Cohen went through 50 jobs in his first years in Detroit. He would take any job he could get, but after not showing up for two Shabbosos in a row, he was fired the following week. Barely knowing English didn’t make things easier. It was only near the end of his life that he owned some real estate from which he earned a comfortable living.

The Parents Make a Promise

Rivkah Cohen watched in anguish as one daughter after another pursued the American dream and relegated Yiddishkeit to the back door. She made a neder to Hashem that if He would give her a son in America, she would make sure he stays frum and becomes a talmid chachom. She gave birth to a boy on May 24, 1924.

From the earliest age, Moshe’s parents kept telling him that as soon as they were able, they would send him out of the country. His mother told it to him with Shema every night. He could have gone to Torah Vodaas in New York, but his parents were worried that his sisters would influence him. They were wary about the race after materialism and money in America and preferred that he go to Europe. While there were all kinds of anti-religious currents in Europe too, staying frum in Europe didn’t subject one to the same contempt that it did in America. They didn’t believe it was possible to raise a truly G-d-fearing son in America.

Moshe went to public school like everyone else, but when he came home in the afternoon, his parents hired a rebbi to teach him in their living room. They invited all the neighbors who wanted to send their children to join the class. The Cohens were known in Detroit as big machnisei orchim, and all the meshulachim stayed with them.

When he was 11 years and 4 months old, his parents found the place for him. One of the meshulachim who stayed by the family told them about a small town in Hungary called Semihy, where the rosh yeshiva, Rav Yaakov Sholom Greenberger, taught a small group in his house. “Your son can sleep and eat there and will have a place to learn,” he reassured them.

It sounded interesting, but how could the Cohens be sure?

Mrs. Cohen resolved to travel with Moshe to Hungary and see the place for herself. When her daughters heard about this, a tumult broke out. “Bringing him back to Europe and leaving him there by himself? A child? Are you crazy? What you’re doing is child abuse!” His sisters were horrified and they even discussed bringing their parents to court.

A Primitive Town in Hungary

Mrs. Cohen and Moshe traveled by boat for 6 to 7 days and by train across Europe until they landed in the chassidishe part of Hungary. Although Semihy was primitive in comparison to American standards, the Cohens were after spirituality, which the town had in abundance. Mrs. Cohen planned to stay with her son half a year until she was confident that he had fully settled in.

But Hashem had other plans. Three months after their arrival, Mr. Cohen got sick and Mrs. Cohen had to leave. She didn’t want to tell Moshe, because she was afraid he would want to leave too, so she left in the middle of the night without even saying goodbye.

Life in the primitive Hungarian town was a difficult adjustment for the young boy. It was the very opposite of America. The town didn’t have even one paved road. Cows and pigs roamed the streets during the day, and there was no running water or indoor bathrooms. There was no electricity, phones or indoor plumbing.

It took Moshe a long time to get used to it.

Once, he went to the outhouse and fell in the filth, becoming dirtied from head to toe. That was the final straw. He began to think seriously about going home. But then he turned to Hashem and said, “Please help me with what I’m going through.” Years later, he mentioned that this event was a turning point that strengthened him for the rest of his life. He told his son, “In those times, everyone managed because you turned to the Abishter. Today, for everything, they go for therapy to try and figure out their ‘feelings.’”

Celebrating His Bar Mitzvah Alone in Semihy

Moshe settled in and became a diligent student. He grew peyos like the Hungarians and fit in with the Hungarian bochurim despite his “Amerikaner” roots.

When he was 12, in 1936, he wrote his mother: “My dear mother, be patient, your big sacrifice for me will surely bring results. The people who laughed and taunted you will see that you didn’t do any crazy thing with me. Everyone will see that your heart is pure and you separated from your only son for a long time only because of your love for the heilige Torah.”

The Cohens made sure that their son had everything he needed. They sent him money and clothes, including many handkerchiefs, a necessary item in those days. He also received toothpaste, which no American could do without. In response to one care package, Moshe wrote his parents, “I thank you, my dear parents, for all the good you do for me. I can only serve you with my increased studying and praying ehrlich, and to forever ask our holy Creator for your well-being.”

Moshe celebrated his bar mitzvah without a single family member present. The Greenbergers made sure to make him a nice affair, and all the Torah scholars in the city were invited to participate in the Amerikaner’s bar mitzvah. A rebbi from a nearby city arrived for the occasion. The Greenbergers made what was considered a lavish bar mitzvah celebration in those areas — cake, wine and a few other delicacies for the celebration. Rabbi Greenberger gave him a present of a tefillin bag and the Cohens sent $6 to pay for his tefillin. Moshe confidently delivered a drasha on Shabbos. The next day he rose early, went to the mikvah, and davened for the amud.

When sending his drasha to his parents by post, he also wrote a few words of gratitude: “I’m not missing anything, boruch Hashem… I know very well that I’m getting older with each passing day and I know very well your hard work and great sacrifice for me. I am studiously trying to fulfill your wish to be a talmid chochom and a yorei Shomayim like you, dear parents, want. I already tried to learn a Mishnah and piece of Gemara on my own.”

Rebbetzin Greenberger wrote the Cohens about the great sensation that his bar mitzvah made, adding, “Shabbos night, the rebbe told him, ‘Nu, Moishele, now you have to put on tefillin and daven – not just to daven, but because your mother deserves a son who is a big talmid chochom and yorei Shomayim.’ Your son responded, ‘Not only my mother wants it, but I also want it.’”

There was nothing to do in that Hungarian town but sit and learn. Traveling was difficult and the young Moshe knew no one anyway, because whatever European relatives he had all lived in Poland.

Only once did he leave the town and travel to Sanz, where the Rafurter Rov lived, to get a bracha from him and spend Yom Tov there. The “Amerikaner” was given much honor for leaving his home and going to study in Hungary. The Rafurter Rov even wrote his parents a letter.

The years passed and he shteiged. He adapted to the demanding yeshiva schedule. There was no playing around in Hungary. If you didn’t get up in the morning, you didn’t get breakfast. You studied day and night, you maintained a strict discipline, and there was no pampering or excuses.

After corresponding with his uncle in Poland for a while, in 1938, when Moshe was 15, he decided to leave Hungary for Poland. His uncle had suggested that he go to learn in the Baranovich or Chachmei Lublin yeshivos. He tried to get a visa into Poland, but was unable to get one in the Hungarian town where he lived. (He later realized that if he would have gone to Poland, he most likely would have been killed.)

For his last half year in Europe, Moshe went to the central yeshiva in Seckles, Hungary. It had once had 300 boys, but the turmoil caused by the upcoming war brought many students to leave and there were only 90 boys when he arrived.

In March 1939, at the end of Moshe’s stay in Semihy, Rav Greenberger wrote a letter to Moshe’s parents, stating, “I helped raise your son, the likes of whom I wish on all Yiddishe mamas. You should know that when I learn a Tosafos with your dear Moshe, I must prepare very well. He learns Tosafos like a talmid chochom. His davening, his Jewish behavior, his waking up and going to sleep are all truly remarkable. I wish the same for my children and grandchildren.”

Escape from Burning Europe

In September 1939, the American consulate and his sisters sent him an urgent message to get out of the country. The consulate warned him that they were not taking responsibility for him because of the war that had just broken out.

The 15-year-old immediately decided to head back home on the first boat he could find. On Sukkos 1939, one month into World War II, he found a small ship that took him on and chugged its way over the Atlantic Ocean over two weeks. His parents had no idea what had happened to him. His mother was sick with worry until he landed in New York and called her to say that he was back in the U.S.

Before he headed to Detroit to see his parents for the first time in four years, he visited Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, from whom he took a farher. He was accepted to Torah Vodaas, but Hashem had other plans.

Studying in a New York Yeshiva

The Mattersdorfer Rov had escaped Austria after the Anschluss and made his way to American shores. He was opening a yeshiva in New York and was accepting students. His brother lived in Detroit and was very friendly with the Cohens. He suggested that their son learn in the new Yeshivas Chasan Sofer.

Strange as it sounds today, in those days, children did what they were told without asking questions. His parents told Moshe to go Yeshivas Chasan Sofer, so he went there. The yeshiva had only 10 boys. (The yeshiva grew after the war, when the Hungarian Holocaust survivors arrived.) After four years without secular studies, Moshe went to night school to get his high school diploma.

Moshe studied at Yeshivas Chasan Sofer for five years and went home sporadically. His parents made sure that he didn’t stay too long in Detroit.

Moshe became a ben bayis by the rosh yeshiva, Rav Shmuel Ehrenfeld. One Pesach, he didn’t go home and was a guest of the rosh yeshiva. The fine bochur with yiras Shomayim made an excellent impression on everyone, and a number of people suggested him for the rosh yeshiva’s own daughter.

Rav Ehrenfeld’s brother in Detroit pushed the shidduch, and didn’t fail to emphasize that it was advantageous financially, since the bochur’s family was comfortable and would not make financial demands. Rav Ehrenfeld wrote his brother, “I don’t care if this shidduch comes with all the money in Detroit. I wouldn’t take him unless he was a talmid chochom.”

Engagement to the Rosh Yeshiva’s Daughter

Moshe became engaged to the rosh yeshiva’s daughter at the age of 20 in 1942. Moshe taught in the yeshiva until his fourties and then continued learning the rest of his life. His whole life revolved around Torah.

Mr. Cohen passed away in 1958, but his mother lived to a ripe old age and passed away in 1973. She remained in Detroit, but went every Pesach to spend the Yom Tov with Moshe and his family in New York.

Like his parents, Moshe had six daughters before he had a son. When his son, Simcha Bunim, had his bar mitzvah in 1970, the family begged the old bubby to attend the celebration of her only frum grandson. However, every Sunday she collected for Torah charities in America and Eretz Yisroel and didn’t want to lose even one week’s avodas hakodesh. She wrote to the family that she would give the money for the trip to the poor instead.

The letter that she wrote Moshe and his family gives a glimpse of the Jews of amol and their love for Hashem: “Beloved children, I wish the bar mitzvah boy mazel tov with the liba Bashefer’s help. May my grandson become a talmid chochom and lamdan. May the words said about Rav Eliezer Ben Hurkanus, that he was a plastered cistern that didn’t lose a drop of water, be fulfilled in him. May my grandson, Simcha Bunim, the son of Moshe, never forget anything he learns now and that he will learn in the future with the liba Bashefer’s help. May the liba Bashefer help you to have a lot of nachas from all your children and a healthy year with peace for the whole world.”

Family Life in New York

Moshe’s Hungarian chinuch remained with him his whole life. He disdained talking about himself or his accomplishments. If anyone asked him where he learned, he would simply say, “Hungary,” never mentioning that he had gone there from the U.S. at the young age of 11. Many times, people asked him to tell his story, but he refused to publicize any aspect of his life.

He brought up his children strictly. He taught by example how a person has to be in total control. When he lost $150,000 in an investment, he went to yeshiva and sat down to learn as if nothing had happened to him. Nothing could bend him out of shape.

He had a daughter living in Eretz Yisroel, but rarely went to visit because it would break his kvius in learning. He said, “If you live with a cheshbon, then you can die with viduy, and if you don’t live with a cheshbon, what kind of viduy will you be able to say? You won’t be able to face death like a Jew should.”

Rav Moshe Cohen passed away a year ago, and his wife passed away half a year later. He left behind over 400 descendants, all of them bnei Torah.

Among his descendants and sons and grandsons-in-law, many are roshei yeshivos and klei kodesh. His son, Rav Simcha Bunim Cohen, is the rov of Khal Ateres Yeshaya in Lakewood and the author of noted seforim. Among his sons-in-laws, Rav Shlomo Lesin is the rosh kollel of Kollel Bais Efraim in Lakewood, Rav Chaim Dovid Rottenberg is rosh yeshiva of the Rachmistrivke Yeshiva in Eretz Yisroel, Rav Mechel Gruss is a rosh yeshiva in Lakewood, and Rav Mendel Herzka is a rebbi at Yeshivas Chasan Sofer.

As Rav Ehrenfeld once said, “Hashem doesn’t owe anyone anything, but if you are moser nefesh, Hashem will pay you back.”

Do you know someone who has an interesting story to relate about growing up frum out-of-town in the 1930-1950’s? Please contact us at



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