Malcolm Cohen, longtime Bay Area rabbi, dies at 83

Malcolm Cohen was a traveling rabbi. To serve, he’d go where the Jews were — from Chicago and Daly City to Fresno and Soledad Prison.

Rabbi Malcolm Cohen

The rabbi died March 20 at his San Bruno home. He was 83.

As a Bay Area spiritual leader, Cohen was best known as rabbi of Congregation B’nai Israel in Daly City. He served there for 19 years, until the synagogue folded in 1995.

“He was very personable,” said his daughter, Maxine Cohen of Mill Valley, “sincerely interested in other people’s stories. He loved teaching Hebrew, history. He loved lecturing, writing sermons. He was always thought-provoking.”

Born in New Haven, Conn., in 1927, Cohen grew up enthralled with the religious fervor of his Orthodox grandparents. Their example inspired him to become a rabbi, even though his own parents were more secular.

He attended Yale University, graduating with a degree in history. From there he went on to join the Reform rabbinate, serving as an Air Force chaplain in England from 1952 to 1954, and then embarking on a career as a pulpit rabbi.

One of his first stops was Pueblo, Colo., where he officiated High Holy Day services one year. One of the congregants invited him over for lunch. That congregant was the mother of his future wife, Blanche.

“She said, ‘Have I got a girl for you,’ ” Maxine Cohen said, recalling how her parents met. “They corresponded a long time and eventually they married.” The Cohens had three children.

Cohen went on to serve as a rabbi for congregations in Chicago; Longview, Texas; Fresno; Salinas; and San Jose. In 1977, the family moved to San Bruno, and remained there.

During his years at B’nai Israel, Cohen particularly relished his role as an educator, though with his booming voice, he was never reluctant to sing along. His daughter noted that he would double as chazzan when serving congregations that had no cantor.

Cohen was willing to welcome all into the sanctuary, sometimes to the point of controversy. “He would officiate at interfaith marriages,” Maxine Cohen remembered. “I would describe him as being more open-minded.”

That open-mindedness led him to want to serve the Jewish populations of Bay Area prisons and jails. In a 1997 article in the Jewish Bulletin, Cohen described life on the inside as horrible. “There are strong racial animosities toward Jews,” he said at the time, “and since Jewish prisoners are such a minority, they’re very quiet.”

That didn’t stop Jewish and non-Jewish inmates from attending his services. “Many Latinos and Afro-Americans attend,” he added. “Mostly out of curiosity, but some are interested in what Judaism has to offer.”

After retiring, Cohen continued to officiate at lifecycle events. Heart problems slowed him down the last five years, but his daughter said her father never stopped fighting.

“He really hung in there,” she recalled. “These [health] issues would creep up and he just kept coming back. The doctors would be amazed.”

Ultimately he lost the final battle, but his daughter says the lessons he taught will endure. “As a rabbi, he took a more philosophical approach to life,” she said. “Caring about humanity and healing the world.”

Cohen is survived by his wife, Blanche Cohen of San Bruno; daughter Maxine Cohen of Mill Valley; son Norman Cohen of Birmingham, Mich.; and two grandchildren. Donations may be made to Jewish Family and Children’s Services, 2001 Winward Way, Suite 200, San Mateo, CA 94404.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.