October 2020

Michelle Cohen's Story: "This light is a homing beacon”



“It’s a small world, and even smaller when you’re Jewish,” says Michelle Cohen, who grew up in the small, southern New Jersey town of Mullica Hill. “However, the Harford Chabad Community is bigger than expected. At every Chabad event, my daughters and I have always felt welcome, a sense of spiritual connection, and honored to attend.”

Although Michelle’s family was the only one in their small town, she has always felt a keen connection to her Judaism, “in spite,” she says, “of experiencing anti-Semitism in grade school.”

Like many Jewish families, Michelle’s Jewish roots reach thousands of miles across the world to Eastern Europe to a great-grandfather who emigrated from Russia as a young man of only 13 to join his older brothers in the U.S. As an Orthodox Jew, he was one of the co-founders of the synagogue Michelle’s family attended, just a few miles north in Woodbury.

Benjamin S. Snyder, Michelle’s great-grandfather, conducted Beth Israel’s first services in his home. The Torah? Kept in a kitchen cupboard. It’s not hard to see where Michelle’s deep, heartfelt connection to Judaism came from – a Judaism that literally lived in the family home.

Although her great-grandfather was Orthodox, Michelle’s family observed Judaism through the Conservative tradition, in which she celebrated her bat-mitzvah. Then, when Michelle ventured out into the world as a young woman, she found another tradition that she connected with.

“Once I moved away for college and grad school, I became affiliated with Chabad and attended services,” she remembers. “Chabad has always been a warm, safe candlelight kindling in a window at night. This light is a homing beacon.”

About a year ago, that homing beacon eventually drew Michelle and her family to Rabbi Kushi and his wife Fraida at the Harford Chabad in Bel Air, where Michelle first attended a break-the-fast, “which felt as if I always had a seat at the family table,” she says.

Since then, Michelle and her daughters have attended the Chanukah menorah-lighting ceremony, Chanukah party, Soup and Scotch events, Purim, and others.

Her first impressions? 

“Rabbi Kushi is a gentle and kind soul who welcomes you into the Chabad Center with open heart, humor, and great wisdom. This past year had been extremely challenging for my family and me,” she says, looking back. “In fact, Rabbi Kushi provided us with kindness, grace, and support and has been a light that has helped to sustain our faith and spirituality. He has strengthened my engagement with Judaism.”

And even though Michelle has always been, right down to her roots, grounded in her Judaism, she found something new at Harford Chabad: a fresh understanding, appreciation and connection to that Judaism. A fresh approach that rekindled not just her own observance, but that of her two daughters, Orly, 20, and Ariel, 18.

“Last Rosh Hashana, Rabbi Kushi said that I should come more often then just for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur and that he’d like to get to know me,” Michelle recalled with a smile. “I said that I felt uncomfortable ... In only Rabbi Kushi’s brand of humor and acceptance, he said, ‘I don’t judge. At least join us to pray instead of driving to see a movie.’”

Rabbi Kushi encouraged her to bring her daughters, too.

“My youngest daughter doesn’t like wearing dresses because she is more comfortable in jeans, which I felt would be disrespectful for services. Rabbi Kushi said, ‘I don’t judge. At least she’ll come,’” Michelle said.

So, Michelle’s resolution was to attend Shabbat services every week. And aside from COVID-19 (and a few migraines), she did.

“My daughters have also become more involved,” she says. “And Rabbi Kushi met me for coffee where he learned about my family and me. Harford County Chabad is family, connection, and a light for everyone – even those who walk into shul (from the parking lot)!”

Michelle’s daughter Orly said that Harford Chabad and Rabbi Kushi have always been inviting, welcoming, and that she never felt awkward. She appreciates Rabbi Kushi’s stories and commentary in between prayers during High Holidays.

“Orly feels that Rabbi Kushi changed her outlook on Judaism, helping her become more aware of being Jewish in her everyday life and not just on holidays,” Michelle said. “Chabad allows her to be more in touch with her Judaism.”

For Ariel, Michelle’s youngest daughter, it's the kindness and humor that is a draw.

“Ariel said that Rabbi Kushi is such a loving and caring person, and that he sets all of his attention on you when he’s speaking,” Michelle said. “He is a great listener and advice-giver, always there when you need him. Ariel feels that Rabbi Kushi brings us closer to HaShem.”

Through the open-hearted acceptance and welcoming attitude of Harford Chabad, Michelle has “become a bit more observant since my involvement with Chabad, and I also feel more connected to the Jewish community that I had before. Rabbi Kushi and Fraida’s heartfelt warmth and open door to Chabad provide the sense of connection and commitment.”

Through your support of Harford Chabad, Jewish families like Michelle’s can find and follow that bright, warm homing beacon to a new and vital connection to their Judaism – one that can change and uplift hearts and minds and lives.

“Harford Chabad has impacted my life with deeper appreciation of my Jewish heritage,” Michelle says. “A greater opportunity to learn and study, and a stronger sense of spirituality.”