2018-04-11 / Home

Israeli native turning 70 on Sunday to lead Israel 70 parade

By JAYNE JACOVA FELD

Voice staff


Moorestown resident Reuven Cohen will be celebrating his birthday in grand fashion on Sunday.

REUVEN AND DEBBIE COHEN…in Tel Aviv in the late 1960s.REUVEN AND DEBBIE COHEN…in Tel Aviv in the late 1960s.

Born in Hadassah Hospital in Tel Aviv on April 22, 1948, Cohen will be leading the parade that kicks off South Jersey’s communitywide Israel Independence Day celebration.

“I didn’t expect this but I’m happy,” said Cohen, noting that his American-born wife Debbie was the one who brought his birthday connection to the attention of organizers of South Jersey’s Israel 70 events, which kick off with the 11:30 a.m. parade starting at Cherry Hill East and leading to “Ben Yehuda Street.” Ok, in reality the joyous procession will lead to the Katz JCC parking lot, which will be set up to bring a taste of Jerusalem’s famous pedestrian mini mall, replete with shops, makeshift cafes and live performers until 4 p.m.

Although he and Debbie have lived stateside since 1972 and raised their three children in Moorestown, Cohen said he often longs for the land of milk and honey. After all, he spent his formative years living on a storied kibbutz that was also home to future Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s sister and father, fought in the Six-Day War under the command of future Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and got to know then-retired Prime Minister David Ben Gurion personally as his bodyguard at Sde Boker for several months after that war.

Fortunately, he returns to Israel frequently for his business, RC Diamond Corporation, and, when there, often gets together with his kibbutznik friends, many of whom also live in far-flung locales.

Grand Marshall Cohen--accompanied by his son daughter Keren, 43, son Rafi, 41, daughter-in-law Cara, his grand-daughter Izzy, 2 1/2, as well as many of his sabra friends -- will be proudly walking in the lead. 

Rueven Cohen is pictured with former Prime Minister David Ben Gurion. Rueven Cohen is pictured with former Prime Minister David Ben Gurion.

He will possibly be wearing a shirt from his kibbutz days, depending on the weather. Following him, honored guests Minnie Kaufman and Joe Singer, both active community members who turned 100 this year, will be riding in a convertible donated by Sky Motor Cars. A second Sky Motor convertible will carry Holocaust survivors. Next in the pack will be JCC and Federation officials riding in a 1976 white Cadillac convertible driven by the owner of the vintage car: Bernie Platt, the former mayor of Cherry Hill, philanthropist, and funeral director.

“We are so excited to bring our collective community together to march in unity to support Israel,” said JCC Cultural Director Sabrina Spector, who is organizing the event with JCC Judaic Coordinator Jill Cogan. “What a great message to our community to see folks of all ages, from all over, from all backgrounds come together for one common purpose.”

For Cohen, anticipation of the parade has brought back memories of the pioneer days in his native country. While of course he wasn’t aware at the time, he was born in the throes of Israel’s War of Independence.

Both his parents hail from Afghanistan and made aliyah in 1936 with their three-month-old daughter Miriam. The family lived in Tel Aviv until Cohen’s mother died when he was nine. That’s when he relocated to Kibbutz Manara in Galil Elion. The mountainside kibbutz, located on the border of Lebanon in the Upper Galilee, is known for its appearance in the book and movie “Exodus,” which documented how the children were evacuated by being carried down the mountain in sacks during the War of Independence.

Cohen left the kibbutz at age 18 for his mandatory military service in 1966. It was a fateful time, as he was on active duty during the Six Day War. As a member of a special Nahal unit, he was charged with tracking down terrorists trying to smuggle arms from Jordan to the Sinai. He rose to the rank of sergeant under the command of Sharon.

Following the war, Cohen was honored to be trusted to be part of Ben Gurion’s security detail. He said the former prime minister was very personable and would engage with him and the other guards in conversation.

“I used to walk with him and members of Mossad every morning,” he recalled. “He liked to talk about politics all of the time.”

After his three years of service were complete, Cohen returned to the kibbutz. That was where he met Debbie, a Melrose Park, PA native who came to Israel as a tourist. She was so taken by the country that she enrolled in Manara’s first Ulpan, a program that combines intensive Hebrew lessons with volunteer work. Cohen was Debbie’s supervisor on the fields where grapefruit, lemon and the like were grown.

He jokes that they were picking citrus when he picked her up. Debbie recalls first becoming interested in him in the dining hall a few days after she arrived.

“He was sitting next to a few friends, At the time, my Hebrew was not very good as I was just starting to learn, and his English was not very good either,” she recalled. “We spent a lot of time with a dictionary.”

Their courtship was atypical given that, even after the Six Day War, Manara kibbutzniks could not let down their guard.

“We couldn’t go out at night,” she recalled. “There were convoys with soldiers guarding us. There was no dating like we know dating here, but we started spending a lot of time together.

The couple were married in Melrose Park in 1971 and lived in Israel for another year before returning to the Philadelphia area. The plan was for Cohen to get a degree from Philadelphia College of Textiles and Sciences (now Philadelphia University) and return to Israel after he gained a few years experience here in the textile business.

However, Cohen ended up switching careers and started his own diamond import business. They raised their three children, Michal, Keren and Rafi, in Moorestown, where the couple still lives. Rafi, a Philadelphia resident, works in the trade with his father. Although he misses much about Israel, Cohen discovered a new passion that is all-American: The Eagles.

“When he became a citizen, he even mentioned that he has become so American that he has to watch football every Sunday,” Debbie said.

She noted that she and Reuven have always stressed their Israeli ties and pride to the children. Members of Temple Sinai in Cinnaminson, they participated in both synagogue-related events and wider community events related to Israel.

Both are honored to be part of an event that ties together Cohen’s birthday with the birth of the modern state of Israel.

“We’re so excited for this,” Debbie said. “When I contacted the JCC, I thought maybe Reuven would be in the parade. I didn’t expect him to be grand marshal.” 

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