Dr. Cohen’s Story

I was frustrated with my conclusions; I did not want to believe that this Y’shua was true. I was afraid of what my parents would think. I feared that they would label me as a traitor and cut me off forever from the family. I dug in my heels and refused to go further.

My father must have grinned when the exhausted nurse announced, “Congratulations, Mr. Cohen—you have a son!” I arrived with a lusty cry, and the news quickly spread from Miami Beach to all the relatives scattered throughout the Northeast. It’s not that I was the first grandchild, but after my three girl cousins, finally there was a boy.

My grandparents immigrated from Russia and Poland, fugitives from political persecution and changing times. They came to America to make new homes, to dream of the future and to raise children who could look forward to something wonderful. Lou Cohen and Ann Rosenthal were two such children who grew up in transplanted east European neighborhoods: Lou in Brooklyn and Ann in Atlantic City.

They understood and respected their Jewish traditions, but they were a new generation, straining for independence. For example, although my mother came from an Orthodox family, she participated in many high school dramas. According to my mother, a well-known New York vaudeville actress approached her after one of the plays and offered to train her in New York. The family thought it over and decided that she was needed at home. I don’t believe she ever resented the decision, but I could just tell by the way she spoke of it that she would have loved to have had such an adventure.

My father’s father was a strict man, and Dad was ready to leave home just about as soon as the Navy would take him. He joined shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. After the war, my parents met, married and rushed off to Miami to begin a new life. I never knew why they wanted to be so far from their families, but my arrival that warm July morning in 1951 began a healing process in the family.

They named me Bernard, but in the temple I was called Ben Tzion, meaning “son of Zion.” When I was three years old, my brother, Barry, was born. His Hebrew name was “Baruch” or blessed. The doctor pronounced it a miracle that he was born alive—his identical twin was stillborn.

My father was raised Orthodox but had swung to Reform. He and my mother reached a compromise early in their marriage and raised us as Conservative Jews.

Holidays bring back mostly pleasant memories, although I admit I kvetched about fasting on Yom Kippur. I eagerly anticipated the final blast of the shofar —not for its religious significance, but for its gastronomic significance: the end of the fast! Most holidays were fun: marching in the Simchas Torah parades, twirling groggers at Purim, and building the booths for Sukkot. My mother made the best latkes in the neighborhood for Chanukah—and when it came to playing dreidel, I always won the most pennies. And how can I forget the Pesach seders? They were long enough to try the patience of any child . . . except for the fact that my parents allowed me to drink the sweet wine! I attended Hebrew school and Saturday school from the age of five. I enjoyed learning about Bible heroes and Jewish traditions. Then there were the Hebrew lessons—we had contests to see who could read the fastest. When I was ten, the temple moved about eight miles away and my “formal” Jewish education ended for a while.

My mother continued to teach us at home. She explained that God had especially chosen the Jewish people and that he always watched over us. Under her supervision, I prayed each night, thanking God for keeping us safe and healthy. I didn’t understand what it meant to be chosen, but apparently it made it necessary for me to do good deeds and excel in school. My parents were especially insistent on the latter, and I usually tried to do my part. Despite the prayers thanking God for good health, I developed asthma. Toward my eleventh birthday it became serious enough for my parents to send me to a drier climate. Off I went to the Children’s Asthmatic Research Institute and Hospital in Denver. I lived in a dormitory with about eighteen other asthmatic boys for about two years.

Of course, my family came to visit me. My mother told me a story in conjunction with one of those visits that made a lasting impression. They were driving over a mountain pass when they found themselves facing another car and what should have been a head-on collision. My mother insisted that she saw an angel on our car that pushed the other vehicle away. I always remembered that story, and it reinforced my belief in God.

Even with visits from the family, I was still pretty much on my own. House parents aren’t the same as real parents, and without the constant encouragement to excel, my grades took a back seat. On the other hand, my religious education flourished. A local Orthodox rabbi took me under his wing and thanks to his tutelage, I was probably ahead of most boys my age. In addition to teaching me to dovven nd read Hebrew, he spent time instructing me in the areas of Jewish history and culture. Like most Jewish boys, I looked forward to my bar mitzvah. The preparation was long and tedious, but in the end, I would be a man. I would wear a tallis, go to the front of the temple and be called to read from the Torah. Most importantly, I would be finished with Hebrew school! My family qvelled as I led the service that summer day in Atlantic City. The rabbi presented me with a beautiful Bible (which I still have) but it was several years before I actually read it.

I felt the same as ever. Yet according to the Jewish religion, on this, the milestone of my thirteenth birthday, I had become a man. Thus my religious education ended. It was time to focus on my secular education. By then I knew I wanted to be a doctor; according to my parents, I started announcing that intention when I was four years old. If I had to say what first attracted me to the profession, it would probably be my pediatrician. He was so kind and so knowing that I found myself wanting to help people like he did. At any rate, I had to get serious about school. My hard work paid off, and four years of Tulane University in New Orleans was the prize. And what an eye opener it was. My protected lifestyle in a predominantly Jewish Miami neighborhood had left me unprepared for the temptations of “Sin City.” I lived with several other students and was impressed by their diverse lifestyles. Harry was the smiling, good-natured athlete who was always prepared to be everyone’s friend. Lee was the typical 1960s hippie with his drug-oriented culture. We had two geniuses, Hunter and Jody, both of whom later became physicians. Then there was Phil, a minister’s son who seemed to think he was perfect. I was the token Jew. Phil routinely referred to me as a “Christ-killer.” This was new to me, and I found it as confusing as it was degrading. How could Phil possibly imagine I was somehow connected to Jesus? Jesus had no part in my life or culture. I used his name as an expletive when things went wrong, but I’d heard gentiles do the same and hardly thought it merited a charge of murder. I thought Phil was a little crazy for believing this myth about Jesus. The strangest part was, Phil would accuse me of killing Jesus with one breath, and with the other he would tell me that this Jesus had died for my sins and that I needed to “accept” him. By the end of my freshman year in college, the tension between Phil and me erupted into a fist fight. He had insulted my people one time too many, and I lost control. The fight only lasted a couple minutes and I lost, but my roommates applauded my efforts, especially since my antagonist was significantly larger than I.

Phil eventually apologized, but I didn’t listen. He didn’t return the following year either; he married his high school sweetheart and probably followed his father to the pulpit. Phil had made quite an impression, despite our short acquaintance. I had learned to hate Christianity.

In fact, I hated the idea of being religious. Phil represented more than an anti-Semitic Christian to me. He was always talking about God, his religion was obviously important to him and yet he was mean spirited and prejudiced. His self-righteousness was so hypocritical that I told myself if being godly meant imitating Phil, I wanted no part of it.

I can’t blame Phil for my declining belief in God. My belief in God had begun to deteriorate for reasons that had nothing to do with Phil. Tulane was an interesting college. About a third of the students were Catholic, a third Jewish, and a third “other.” Most of the Jews there were nominal in their beliefs. In college it’s easy to intellectualize God’s existence. I had gradually come to believe that God was “out there,” and I never concerned myself with thoughts of him unless I was in trouble and needed his help. However, after the fist fight with Phil, I doubted God’s very existence. Phil’s hypocrisy led me to think that we were merely products of our upbringing. I became an agnostic. Like many college-age guys, I began to think only of myself and the gratification of my needs and desires. My grades slipped, I experimented with various substances, and I renounced any religious beliefs. By my third year of college, I had abandoned my Jewish traditions. I was basically on a downward emotional spiral, barely motivated enough to maintain the grades necessary for medical school.

At the time, I didn’t understand what depression was, but now I suspect that I was somewhat depressed. Perhaps it was a result of the drugs, or maybe just uncertainty about whether I wanted to continue toward a career in medicine.

Then I met Jim. Jim was recovering from a failed relationship with his girlfriend, Sandy. She was Jewish; he was not. I found myself very attracted to her, despite something very odd: she believed in Y’shua (Jesus) as the Messiah. I pretended to listen, to be interested in her beliefs, so that I could spend time with her. I secretly hoped to convert her back to Judaism—never mind that I was an agnostic at the time!

Sandy came from a family of several generations of rabbis. Her parents were very upset about her beliefs, and as a result, Sandy endured forced counseling sessions with religious leaders and psychologists. Yet she held firmly to her faith in Y’shua. Sandy told me that the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures pointed to Y’shua as the Messiah. She believed that God had forgiven her sins through Y’shua’s sacrificial death, and she said that faith in Y’shua was necessary to receive eternal life. I replied that there was only one God, he didn’t have a son, and there was no such thing as eternal life.

I challenged her to point out specific prophesies and she did. Over the next six months, I not only opened my bar mitzvah Bible, which had remained shut for so many years—I actually read much of it.

I discovered that the prophet Micah had predicted that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2) and that Jeremiah stated the Messiah would be of the seed of David (Jeremiah 23:5). Isaiah prophesied the unusual circumstances of the Messiah’s birth (Isaiah 7:14) and described his reign (Isaiah 9:1–8). And in one of the most poetic and wondrous passages I had ever seen, that same prophet described the sufferings of the servant Messiah and the revelation of what was to come in the days ahead (Isaiah 52:13–53:12).

Sandy also pointed me to Jeremiah and his prophesy of the new covenant, a covenant based on a change in mind and heart and a new closeness to God (Jeremiah 31:31–34). Ezekiel further elaborated upon the cleansing from sin and the new spirit God would place in our hearts (Ezekiel 36:26ff).

I was amazed by these prophesies, and became convinced that God planned to send a Messiah to accomplish these events. As a child, I had always believed that the Bible was true. Through adolescence my belief wavered. But then, I hadn’t read the Scriptures for myself. As I saw those Scriptures, I did not doubt that my Bible was true, and that the promise of a Messiah was real.

But was it Y’shua? Or was the Messiah still to come? Coming from a Jewish background, I understood that God had given the sacrificial system, that he had instructed Moses very specifically, and that following the system was an act of obedience to seek God’s forgiveness. I also understood that when the Temple was destroyed, the sacrificial system was suspended, although I didn’t know enough history at the time to understand why.

Sandy explained that God did not do away with the sacrificial system even though the Temple was destroyed. The Law and all its requirements remained. She also explained to me that God had provided his ultimate sacrifice through Jesus. She said that Jesus was the Lamb of God, the final sacrifice for forgiveness of sins, both then and in the future for all those who would accept that sacrifice. Faith in him, she said, satisfied God’s requirements for atonement. Without him, we were accountable for our own sins, without the Temple, the sacrificial system, and all the things necessary to obtain atonement.

Sandy also explained that the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70 precluded any future person from claiming they were the Messiah. The genealogical records that could link a person’s ancestry to the tribe of Judah were destroyed. That made sense to me, but it did not prove Y’shua was the Messiah. The biggest issue that Sandy and I discussed was whether or not accepting Jesus meant that I wouldn’t be Jewish any longer. She explained to me that all the first Christians were Jews and that accepting Jesus would not diminish my Jewish identity. Sandy suggested I read the Gospel of John in the “New Testament.” I was alarmed by such a suggestion; Jews did not read the New Testament. That was “for gentiles only.” Besides, I didn’t have a copy. Still, I really wanted to prove that Sandy was wrong and establish a deeper friendship with her at the same time. So I agreed to borrow her copy of Good News for Modern Man, a modern paraphrase of the New Testament. I read the Gospel of John and then the other three Gospels: Luke, Mark, and Matthew. The texts were amazing, and I found much that I did not understand.

What type of man was this Y’shua? How did he perform all those miracles? Why did he have to die if he was God? Did he really rise from the dead? And what did this mean for Jews? Sandy helped answer my questions, but with every batch of answers I had a fresh crop of questions.

I was frustrated with my conclusions; I did not want to believe that this Y’shua was true. I was afraid of what my parents would think. I feared that they would label me as a traitor and cut me off forever from the family. I dug in my heels and refused to go further.

Before long, Jim and Sandy got back together. I could no longer cherish any hopes of a blossoming romance. In the spring of 1971, Sandy invited me to go with her to a “Bible retreat” in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. It was sponsored by a group called InterVarsity, and it was a way to leave campus for the weekend. She promised some fun activities, and yes, there would be some speakers to listen to. I agreed to go, although to this day I don’t know why I did.

The conference speaker chose a passage in the Book of Romans. It was a section I had not read, and I took many notes. Romans was written by a man named Paul. He had a way of writing that seemed to speak more clearly to me than any other portion of the New Testament I had read.

Paul explained how humanity had all sinned. He explained about righteousness and how all of us, including Jews, fell short of God’s glory. However, God had provided a way for us to be reconciled to him, and that was through faith in his son, Y’shua. God’s provision was an example of his love toward us. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). God’s grace was a free gift, and asking Y’shua into my life would change my inner being and create a new relationship with God. I would receive the Holy Spirit from God and have power over my own sin and unrighteousness. I would share in Y’shua’s glory and have eternal life with him.

For the first time, I understood God’s holiness and my own sinfulness. I could see that the human race was at odds with God, that we were in rebellion, not even wanting to admit his existence despite all the evidence of creation that pointed to a Creator. I felt for the first time that the relationship I really wanted was not with Sandy but with the God who was such an important part of her life.

That night I asked Y’shua into my life and repented of my sins. I immediately felt changed; there was a lightness to my step and I felt I was floating when walking back to my cabin. I knew God had given me his Spirit and that Y’shua would be with me forever. How does a changed person act when there is good news to share? I told everyone I knew. My roommates couldn’t believe it; in time they convinced me to quit discussing my faith with them.

I went home for the summer and continued to tell people about my wonderful new life, including my mother. No one had prepared me for her response. She spent the entire summer attempting to dissuade me from my faith in Y’shua. I had no Christian friends in Miami, no support group to pray for me. I was on my own with God; he was faithful and sustained me. I found a group of Jewish Christians in Miami and attended some of their meetings. It was a relief to find that I wasn’t the only Jewish believer in Jesus. I realized with some sadness that this was the last summer I would spend at home with my parents. I couldn’t blame them for not understanding my faith. Their refusal to accept my right—in fact my responsibility—to decide what I should believe convinced me that I no longer belonged under their roof, no matter how much we loved each other. I wanted to incorporate my Jewish traditions and culture into the faith I now had in Y’shua, but it was difficult and I became frustrated. God would later provide some answers through a new evangelistic group called Jews for Jesus. My encounter with their singing group in 1974 made a lasting impact on my life. They demonstrated that it was possible to be Jewish, participate in the traditions I cherished, and express my beliefs in Y’shua at the same time.

My senior year in college was exciting. I met my future bride. We were quite different, but we both loved Jesus and together we grew in faith and knowledge of the Lord. I became a Bible study leader for InterVarsity and eventually assumed an associate staff position with them while in medical school.

Another Jewish believer and I organized an outreach book table in the Tulane University Center on weekends. The Jewish Press learned about us and warned the Jewish community of our presence. This thoroughly embarrassed my brother, who was also at Tulane, and thus began a long estrangement between us. Many years would pass before our relationship healed. Martha and I decided to marry while I was in medical school. We had ceremonies in both the temple and the church; it was our attempt to heal some wounds and make a statement about our union and faith.

With renewed enthusiasm, I implemented several expressions of Jewish life into our new family. Martha (who is not Jewish) has been a jewel. Over the years she has become as excited about Jewish tradition as I am. My mother still has the edge on latkes, but Martha is getting close. One of the proudest days of our life was the day our son stood at the bimah and was bar mitzvah.

Much has happened over the last twenty years to strengthen my faith in Y’shua. Through his grace, I survived the rigors of medical school and residency, and I strove to bring him glory through the art and practice I learned. God gave me a gift, and I was able to recognize depression that others could not discern. I have prayed with people while they hurt, and I have celebrated with others as God’s glory was revealed in healings.

My belief in God had a definite impact on my practice. I remember a young girl in Tennessee who was unmarried and pregnant. She was a Christian who had lapsed in her faith and wanted to have an abortion. I counseled her for several weeks, at least two or three times a week. She kept her baby, later saying that if it hadn’t been for our discussions, she would have had an abortion.

I recall a couple in their mid-forties who had two teenage children. I had to present them with the news that the wife was pregnant. They were scared, and they didn’t know what to do— the idea of raising another child from infancy did not fit in with their plans at all. God helped us work through the issues together and they elected to keep the baby.

There was a middle-aged teacher who had bouts with depression and questions about the reality of God. We discussed her questions over a period of months and she eventually made a profession of faith in Jesus. That released her from her depression. I thank God for the decision that some mothers made to keep their babies after counseling and prayer. And I have mourned for those who chose otherwise.

One pitfall of the medical profession is that our patients can perceive us as godlike. Knowing Y’shua has taught me that it is not I who heals, but it is through the power of God that all things are possible. I am grateful to be an instrument through which he works.

I practiced family medicine for fifteen years. My partner for seven years was a kind and compassionate Jewish family physician named Roy. He knew my beliefs (I explained them to him on more than one occasion) and though we thought differently on matters of faith, it was a good partnership.

I have also practiced with a group of Christian physicians, and planned to create a large Christian multidisciplinary outreach in Florida. However, years of faith in Y’shua have taught me that God’s plans for my life may differ from my own. I gradually shifted away from practicing clinical medicine and into business. This process took several years, but it was a deliberate decision based on what I saw happening in the field of medicine. The practice of medicine is becoming more and more influenced by large insurance companies without the input of community physicians. I felt that more physicians needed to involve themselves with administrative medicine in order to maintain the high level of quality care to which we are accustomed. I also believed that managed care was good for medicine. It can help us determine more cost-effective ways to treat people, eliminate ineffective procedures and allow us to care for a greater percentage of lower-income people.

I see managed care as the best vehicle for promoting preventive health initiatives. Many people with older indemnity type insurance do not seek medical care until illness leaves them no choice. In any case, I took several courses, decided I enjoyed administration, and got my MBA so that I would be prepared. In 1993, I entered the world of business and health care. I now manage the medical operations of a health maintenance organization. Business is not the world of medicine as I knew it. In medicine, there are basic ethical standards by which physicians practice their art. Business ethics also exist, but many professionals conduct themselves with varying degrees of principle. I have much to learn and a long way to go in being more like Y’shua. I pray that I will be able to follow the exhortation the Apostle Paul gave in one of his epistles: “Only let your conduct be worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Philippians 1:27). “But indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things” (Philippians 3:8).

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