By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
This week marked the tragic loss of a remarkable woman, Rebbetzin Gita Cohen, a’h. Her life was replete with sacrifice for Torah; a life that proved the Talmudic adage “Torah is only truly established in one who sacrifices greatly for it” (Berachos 63b). Her husband, children, and sons-in-law are all roshei yeshiva–leaders and teachers of Torah.
Rebbetzin Cohen was a jewel who lived in Far Rockaway for the last 30 years. Slowly and steadily, she and her husband, ybl’c, Rav Shaya Cohen, shlita, brought many thousands of people to a life of Torah and mitzvos.
Who was this remarkable woman, and where did she come from?
She was born in the holy city of Yerushalayim, three years before the War of Independence. She grew up in a two-room apartment. One room housed Reb Aryeh Levin and his rebbetzin. The other room housed her parents and all their children. There was no heat or running water. Modern-day Americans cannot fathom these conditions. And yet she grew up in a happy home, where Torah and mitzvos were all that were important.
She lived close to her uncle and aunt, the Elyashiv family. Her cousin, Rav Elyashiv’s daughter, was her childhood friend and playmate. Although poor from an economic standpoint, she was a princess in terms of the towering spirituality of her family forebears. She grew up immersed in the Torah of giants of Judaism.
And soak it up she did. The Rebbetzin was a child prodigy, and at the age of one, she was fully fluent in Yiddish. The Brisker Rav was so impressed by her as a little girl that he remarked, “That young girl is destined for greatness.” Her grandfather lovingly referred to her as “Giteleh Ha’Chachamah.”
Tragedy struck the family when she was young. In 1948, in the War of Independence, the apartment was shelled by Arab bombs. The room housing her and Rav Elyashiv’s daughter was badly hit, and the explosion caused the ceiling and walls to cave in. Rav Elyashiv’s daughter was tragically killed, R’l, and the young Rebbetzin Gita was knocked unconscious, hidden by the rubble around her. Her mother was initially unaware that she was in the room, and only through a miracle did she notice her daughter’s foot sticking out from the rubble. Her husband later commented that she was given a gift of 68 extra years of life.
Rebbetzin Cohen was the great-granddaughter of the Alter of Slabodka, of whom the Chazon Ish had said that all Torah in America and Israel exists on account of him. After her marriage, she moved to America and, together with her husband, built Torah as well. They founded Torah institutions that brought multitudes to a life of Torah and mitzvos. There are students from coast to coast studying because of her and her husband’s prodigious efforts–in the batei midrashim of BMG in Lakewood, New Jersey, to the beis midrash of Yeshiva Ner Aryeh in the San Fernando Valley in California.
In her home, the Alter’s Torah and mussar thought were part of the family legacy. She loved to review Rav Sholom Schwadron’s collections of his mussar thought, Ohr HaTzafun. She would often repeat his mussar ideas to students and roshei yeshiva that she would meet. The rabbanim and roshei yeshiva of Far Rockaway, Rav Bressler and Rav Perr, for example, were very impressed and taken with her wisdom and knowledge.
Her maternal grandfather was the famed tzaddik of Yerushalayim, Reb Aryeh Levin, zt’l, and she would accompany her grandfather on his mitzvah-laden expeditions. Rav Levin was mekarev Menachem Begin. He would visit indigent patients in Shaare Zedek hospital and elsewhere. He visited prisoners. He had a genuine love of people and was completely non-judgmental of others. His granddaughter inherited these traits as well. Later in life, she worked with at-risk girls. They loved her deeply, because they saw her non-judgmental attitude and her genuine love and concern. Teaching side by side with her, I myself saw her lovingly embrace girls who were rejected by others. Now these young ladies are kollel wives and mothers in Klal Yisrael. Today, they remember her loving and kind demeanor.
On her father’s side, she was the granddaughter of Rav Shlomo Yehuda Leib Platchinsky, zt’l, the av beis din of Vishki and later Dvinsk, home of both the Rogatchover Gaon and Rav Meir Simcha. To be an av beis din in such a city is no easy feat, particularly with such luminaries as residents. Rav Shlomo Yehuda Leib was married to Rebbetzin Sara Liba, the daughter of the Alter. Rebbetzin Cohen never knew her paternal grandparents; they were murdered in the vicious Nazi onslaught in Dvinsk. In December of 1942, thousands of Jews, many of them children or elderly, were brought to a clearing outside of the city. The Nazis, yemach sh’mam, ordered the Jews to dig large ditches, gunned them down, and buried them in the pits. Sadly, Rav Shlomo Yehuda Leib’s great writings were also lost at the time.
Rebbetzin Cohen was the niece of the gadol ha’dor, Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, zt’l, and, lbc’l, the cousin of Rav Chaim Kanievsky, shlita. She was the daughter of Rav Laizer Platchinsky, zt’l, who was one of the gedolei ha’dor, the rosh yeshiva of Beis Aryeh in Yerushalayim, and an early choice for the leadership of the Ponovezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak.
In her own right, she was a remarkably illustrious and tzanua woman whose knowledge of Tanach, meforshim, and the mussar thoughts of the giants of the previous generation was uncanny. She had her own interpretation of a pasuk in Tehillim (128:3): “Eshtecha k’gefen poria b’yarkesai beisechaÂ .Â .Â .–Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table.” Her rendering of this verse had the words “b’yarkesai beisecha” as the operative term: When she is b’yarkesai beisecha–in the inner house, exemplifying the Torah’s ideals of tznius–then your children shall become those olive shoots. Tznius brings blessing and berachah.
Rav Laizer Platchinsky, zt’l, in the introduction to his sefer Sh’lom Yehuda, writes how he was plucked from the fiery ashes of the Nazi Holocaust in Europe and made it to Yerushalayim, where he was able to become a close talmid of the Brisker Rav in Yerushalayim and the Chazon Ish in Bnei Brak. He exchanged numerous letters with both of them. Rebbetzin Cohen absorbed this remarkable Torah environment and later transplanted it all to her home in Los Angeles and later in New York.
She married Rav Shaya Cohen in 1968. In 1975, they moved to North Hollywood, California, and established Emek High School, later to be renamed Valley Torah Center. There they worked intensely, side by side, to reach out to others in Torah. They sent their talmidim and talmidos to yeshivos and seminaries in Yerushalayim. Much of the Torah community in North Hollywood exists because of their dedicated years in the Valley.
The Rebbetzin and her husband struggled in California as well, but she always was a happy person, fulfilling the commandment of “Ivdu es Hashem b’simcha.” They struggled with tragedy. They lost their young son Aryeh, who was named after the Rebbetzin’s grandfather. He too was a brilliant child prodigy. It is difficult to lose a child, and yet she knew that for the rest of the children she must continue to show them how to serve Hashem b’simcha.
There was anti-Semitism as well. Once at the Shabbos minyan, someone set fire to the fence behind the minyan. Swastikas were painted on the building, and once even three young bachurim were attacked by anti-Semitic goyim. It was a time when no one paid attention to such incidents.
They also struggled financially. One of the supporters of the yeshiva in California, Mr. F., saw that the Cohens were driving a jalopy of a car. When Mr. F. purchased a new car, he gave his old car to the Cohens. The problem was that it was a Lincoln Continental, albeit 12 years old, and someone commented that Rabbi Cohen was surely being paid well if he’s driving a Lincoln. At that moment, however, Rebbetzin Cohen was at home sitting in the dark because the electricity was shut off for lack of payment. Rabbi Cohen was always paid last, after the secular-studies teachers and after the rebbeim. Rebbetzin Cohen handled the difficulties with an unparalleled emunah and bitachon, knowing that their mission was an important one.
After the move to New York, and in her late forties, she became a school psychologist, to help others as well as to help with the family finances.
The Rebbetzin was fighting off illness during her last years of life. Still, she merited to participate in the wedding of a granddaughter during her last week. Her passing was a shock to her family, as the doctors had said that her numbers were improving.
At her levayah, her brother Reb Shlomo Platchinsky, shlita, a rosh yeshiva in Yerushalayim, eulogized her in the teary Hebrew sing-song that characterizes Yerushalmi levayos, saying: “She was the pe’er of the family. She personified ahavas haTorah. When our father was by the Chazon Ish and the Brisker Rav, she absorbed it all. Father was so proud of her. She was his right-hand assistant, she ran all his errands. She had ahavas ha’Torah, mesirus nefesh l’Torah.”
Rav Yechiel Perr, shlita, in his eulogy of the Rebbetzin, focused on “lechtech acharai ba’midbar,” how she went with her husband to the midbar, the wilderness in California, and then to start all over again in New York.
One son-in-law, Rabbi Avi Pollack, the rosh yeshiva of Am HaTorah, said: “What a tzanua she was, [and] a brilliant woman. There was a power of Torah in the house, a love of learning. My wife would call to help prepare a lesson. She knew all Tanach with meforshim. My daughters would call for help in assignments and papers. She was always giving.”
Rabbi Yehuda Cohen, the eldest son, said: “You loved us unconditionally. You personified ‘Emor me’at v’assei harbeh.’ All you wanted was for us to learn Torah. Your great-grandfather was the Alter, your uncle Rav Elyashiv, zt’l, your father Rav Laizer Platchinsky. She would tell us how she grew up in the house with no running water. Once she related how there was a sign by the butcher that he is not taking credit. She turned around, crying. In 1975, they went to Los Angeles. A group of beis midrash bachurim offered to stay to help the yeshiva, but only if her husband would stay all day in the beis midrash to give shiur. When she heard that she was elated. ‘It’s a Mishnah: Ha’mekabel alav ol Torah–one who accepts upon himself the yoke of Torah, all worldly matters are moved from him. That day, my father was put in contact with someone who left the yeshiva a million dollars.’”
Another son, Chezky, said: “I had an aneurism. She was there the whole time. She sat by my side. My sister told me that she heard her say at the time that I should get better and it should happen to her.”
There were many more maspidim, and not a dry eye in the yeshiva.
Another son explained how one just cannot say stories, because these were ma’asim b’chol yom, everyday occurrences. She loved Torah; the only thing that mattered to her was Torah learning. She got upset when Torah was said while she was in the kitchen. She would say, “Now you are talking Torah? You must wait for me to hear it, when I come back to the table.”
At the shivah in Yerushalayim, the great gedolim of Eretz Yisrael came to be menachem avel. The Rebbetzin is buried on Har HaZeisim next to her illustrious father. She leaves a twofold legacy. She leaves a remarkable family that has impacted and will continue to impact Klal Yisrael with their Torah and genuine love for others. And she also leaves untold numbers of Klal Yisrael who were touched and inspired by this remarkable woman.
The author can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com.