Rachel on why she should be Jewish Girl of the Year:
As Jews go, I’m a late bloomer. To make up for that, in 2010 I testified before the Knesset on renewing their investment in Birthright Israel, chaired the Birthright Alumni Leadership mission, worked with the Jewish Outreach Institute on engaging interfaith-families and jumped in the mikvah for an Orthodox conversion!
Spencer and Rachel are team JGOTs this week; they answered the questions together. Congratulations on the engagement!
Which biblical character best describes you and why?
Spencer: I don’t know about me, but when I think of Rachel, it’s obvious—Ruth. There are many parallels, including Ruth being a truly righteous and committed convert—in fact, rabbinic tradition considers Ruth the first convert—and her dedication led to millennia of ever-strengthening Jews through to King David and all the generations beyond. Rachel recently underwent her official conversion, but like Ruth, her devotion to the Jewish people came long before… and like Ruth, Rachel has affected thousands of Jews through programs she has started and as an integral leader in our community. She’s totally the Ruth of our generation.
Which famous movie star would you want to play you in your made for TV movie?
Rachel: There is only one famous person who could ever play Spencer in a bio-pic – – and that is none other than Olympic figure skater Evan Lysacek. Even Spencer’s own father agrees he had to look twice during those triple axels just to make it wasn’t really Spencer.
If you had to have a Jewish MTV Real World, which people would you want living with you?
Rachel: Shia LaBeouf, Jake Gyllenhaal, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Sacha Baron Cohen, Seth Green.
Spencer: I like to laugh. I like funny Jews. Adam Sandler, Jon Stewart, Jerry Seinfeld, Sarah Silverman, Seth Rogen… oh and Rachel’s brother Michael Bradley Cohen is also hysterical and will one day be a famous actor so he should live with us too.
You have a crush on which Biblical character?
Spencer: Refer back to question about which biblical character describes you & why…
If you won Jewish Guy/Girl of the year, what would you do with the prize money?
Spencer: I look at my own life and realize how fortunate I am to have so many opportunities. Then I think about my mother and her parents moving here from Germany after narrowly surviving the holocaust, having lost everything and everyone. I can’t live such a privileged life without realizing where I came from.
I feel connected to the children of Rwanda. Living in the aftermath of genocide, they too deserve hope and opportunity. I am planning a mission to Rwanda to bring that hope, build important bonds, and instill the Jewish values of bettering the world (tikkun olam) in the Jewish trip participants.
Prize money would be nice, but I’ll make sure it happens either way.
Spencer, that fits pretty well with what we’ve heard about you spending your free time reuniting Ethiopian Jewish families. Can you tell us about that?
My life’s passion involves traveling the world. I’ve vowed to visit every country before I die and I make more progress every year. This year included trips to Uganda and Ethiopia. Currently I am writing from Peru… and then am on my way to Venezuela, Costa Rica, Turkey, and Pakistan (long story). Believe it or not you can find Jews just about anywhere—even if there is only one left. I often try to find foreign Jewish communities in my travels—it’s one big family all over the world.
The Ethiopia story is ongoing, but to make a long story short, a friend and I went to the old Jewish/Falasha village near Gondar, Ethiopia. Israel airlifted most of the Jews out of Ethiopia during Operations Moses and Solomon, but we found one Jew left in that village who knew all of the customs and was incredibly passionate about moving to Israel. I hunted down her family in Israel… progress… but there are still questions of her actual genealogy. It seems she was adopted by this Jewish family… so stay tuned for what happens next…
Spencer, Rachel tells us you decided to build your future home out of Biblical materials. Explain.
For many weeks, we had been struggling with the decision of what materials to use to build our home. Vinyl siding? Stucco? Brick? Wood? If wood, what type of wood? We seemed to change our minds every day. What we didn’t know was that Judaism could answer this question for us in a truly beautiful way…
The Talmud (Gittin 57a) records a charming custom about marriage: “When a boy is born, a cedar tree is planted and when a girl is born a cypress tree is planted. When they grow up and get married, the wedding canopy, the chuppah, is made of branches taken from both trees.”
The combining of these two trees symbolizes the union of the bride and groom. Moreover, the chuppah is used in the wedding ceremony to symbolize the house that the bride and groom build together. So there was our answer.
When I proposed to Rachel on that empty plot of land, I said that this is where we will build our house together, our life together, and our family together. Now as the building takes shape, combining cedar and cypress will forever symbolize our everlasting union.
Rachel, you just started a new job. Can you describe it to us?
I am very excited to have been named the Director of Young Adult Initiatives for the Schusterman Family Foundation. Our mission is to spread the joy of Jewish living, giving and learning, and we do this through supporting programs that ensure vibrant Jewish life by empowering young Jews to embrace the joy of Judaism, build inclusive Jewish communities, support the State of Israel and repair the world.
In this new role I will oversee initiatives to cultivate a growing network of young innovators, professionals, and program alumni to work collaboratively to create meaningful Jewish experiences for themselves and their peers.
Rachel, your upbringing is unique. Tell us about yourself.
I’m likely the only Rachel Cohen you’ll meet who grew up singing in the church choir, a child of an interfaith marriage, and the proud descendent of seven generations of United Church of Christ ministers and missionaries.
I was lucky enough to participate in the very first Birthright Israel trip in the Winter of 1999-2000 – and as cliche as it sounds, it changed my life forever.
I wish I could say that my decision to go on the trip was motivated by a deep sense of longing for an understanding of Judaism or connection to my Jewish roots. It wasn’t. I applied because I had never had the chance to travel abroad and it didn’t hurt that the trip was free.
Once in Israel I fell in love with a culture, a people, a country and a religion. As much as I felt out of place having little knowledge of the traditions, practices or beliefs associated with the Jewish people- – I also felt part of a giant global family. Needless to say, my family was quite surprised when I returned to NJ committed to exploring my Jewish identity.
Ten years later both my little sister and brother have gone on Birthright Israel and I now belong to a Jewish family! Spencer led us all in a Passover seder last year at my sister’s college – no doubt the first of many we’ll share together.
And what of the “other side” of my family? This has not been a journey I’ve been on alone by any means, and my family has been pretty incredible in the interest they have taken in learning about my newfound Jewish faith. My Christian cousin regularly attends events with me at 6th & I – my aunt, who is a Minister, has started participating in weekly Shabbat programs at a Reform temple near her – and my 90 year old grandmother (also a minister) even went to shul on high holy days this year!