Chicago Rabbi Menachem Cohen was named to the Forward’s list of most inspiring rabbis in 2016.
Years before he started working for the Night Ministry, Rabbi Menachem Cohen spotted its bus on the street one night and made a silent promise.
“In the back of my mind, I said, ‘I’m going to bring some yiddishkeit to that one day,'” said Cohen. He was referring to one of Chicago’s oldest social service organizations, whose well-known outreach bus offers those in need everything from coffee to medical care.
Cohen kept his promise; when looking for a job in 2003, he contacted the Night Ministry. Since then, he has been a vital part of their youth outreach team, where he finds and engages young people at risk of experiencing homelessness.
He’s also the founder of Mitziut , an independent, non-denominational Jewish spiritual community based in East Rogers Park.
Now, Cohen’s dedication and unique contribution to Jewish life and beyond is being officially recognized. The Forward has chosen him as one of America’s most inspiring rabbis in 2016.
“I’m honored, humbled, and excited about what this can mean for the programs I’m part of,” said Cohen about his recognition. He is one of only 32 rabbis from across the country chosen for this honor, out of more than 100 nominees.
Cohen grew up in the Chicago area, the son of a social worker and a teacher. He has always worked in social services, but with the Night Ministry he feels he’s found his perfect match.
“The philosophy of the team is relationship-based,” said Cohen. “We call it the ‘ministry of presence.’ We don’t have an agenda. We are there to be with them, to remember their names, and to let them know what services we have. We’re not trying to sign them up for a program. In this way, they get to know us and then they will come to us. It’s more authentic that way, and then they work on what they want.”
The work is deeply satisfying, he said. “It is so wonderful to build these relationships with young people. I know when they give me nicknames that I’m connected,” he said. And with his signature kilt and long hair, Cohen said he is often on the receiving end of many affectionate nicknames.
But his connection to youth at risk goes much deeper than a few nicknames. After a series of deep conversations, one young man decided to make some very profound and positive changes in his life. And he credited Cohen with being his “touch person.”
“I didn’t help him fill out any [job or college] applications, but what I did was have conversations where I heard him and listened to him as a person, and that is really what stuck with him. That approach gives me such satisfaction because it’s a soul-to-soul approach. It is a longer road but in the end it makes a bigger difference,” said Cohen.
As for the “rabbi” side of Cohen, he was ordained by the Hebrew Seminary — a Rabbinical School for Deaf and Hearing, because of his deep connection to Congregation Bene Shalom in Skokie and its Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer.
“Everyone told me about the deaf congregation that was founded by deaf families, and I fell in love with the place,” he said.
After becoming a rabbi, Cohen founded Mitziut in 2003 as an answer to the disconnected Jew who longed for more spirituality and meaning. Meeting on Shabbat and holidays for a spirited, musical service followed by a potluck meal, the community gathers everywhere from people’s homes to the beach.
If that isn’t enough, Cohen is also a partner at AlleyCat comics in Andersonville. And, as a life-long game player, he is working on a prototype for a game that will teach empathy for those experiencing homelessness.
Married to an art therapist, Cohen and his wife are parents to a 9-year-old child.
Throughout it all, Cohen is energized about his life and his work. “I love that I’m doing good work in the world and am helping people improve their lives,” he said.
Abigail Pickus is a Chicago-based writer and editor.