At the end of his second year in law school, Baruch Cohen was invited to interview for a job with a Wall Street law firm. This was a total surprise, as he had not applied for a position with the “white shoe” firm, which normally courted straight-A, Ivy League waspy students. Baruch, in contrast, attended a mid-level law school, was obviously Jewish, and didn’t have a perfect GPA. The dean told him, “I have no idea why you got this opportunity but I suggest you not wear your yarmulke to the interview. And make sure those white strings aren’t coming out of your belt.”
Coming from a long line of orthodox rabbis and committed to his Judaism, Baruch was torn. “I grew up in a tough Far Rockaway neighborhood,” he recalls. “Where I come from, anyone telling me to take off my kippah was usually angling for a fight.” He asked advice from rabbis and orthodox attorneys he knew: wear the kippah for the interview or not? Everyone advised he remove it for this potentially career-making opportunity.
With his kippah in his pocket, Baruch walked into the interview feeling almost as if he were shirtless. He was stunned to see that the attorney sitting there wore a huge velvet yarmulke and tzitzit. His first question to Baruch was, “Where’s your yarmulke?”
Too shocked to speak, Baruch learned that this attorney had seen him clerking in court, noticed his kippah and decided to offer him an interview. As the young law student stood there defenseless, the elder man laced into him. “You’re a sellout,” he said. “This is a firm of leaders, not followers.” The interview ended before it began.
This event was a defining moment, sharpening Baruch Cohen’s commitment to never apologize for who he was.
This event, which took place more than 25 years ago, was a defining moment, sharpening Baruch Cohen’s commitment to never apologize for who he was. “Ever since that day, I have worn my kippah everywhere, at bench trials and any other professional venue. If someone has a problem with my kippah, it’s their problem, not mine. Orthodox Jewish attorneys should not feel like second-class citizens in the American judicial system. Our Torah pioneered all the core concepts of law.”
A successful L.A. business and litigation attorney, Baruch Cohen says that today, it’s common to see observant attorneys wearing kippahs in the courtroom, and he has never personally encountered flack from judges for it. But among the many articles he has written on the intersection of Jewish and civil law, one was based on a Texas judge who demanded an orthodox attorney remove his kippah in her courtroom or she would not allow him to argue his case there.
Baruch Cohen holding a Kassam rocket
that Hamas fired into Sderot
Baruch’s persona as an observant Jew, especially in the very public arena of courthouses, makes him a magnet for questions about Israel and Judaism. Once a Jewish colleague cornered him at the courthouse. “I can’t understand why Israel won’t make peace with the Palestinians,” the man asked.
Baruch was outraged at the man’s naiveté. “This was a stacked question, so I employed a technique to get him to see the truth. Knowing the man was around 60, I asked him if he had ever had a CAT scan or MRI.”
“That’s an invasive question,” the man countered.
Baruch repeated the question, and as he retells the story, he clearly savors the memory of the duel. His colleague admitted that he had not only had these medical scans but that a tumor had been discovered along the way.
Did you decide to make peace with the tumor or did you go to battle with it to save your life?
Baruch then went in for the kill: “Did you decide to make peace with the tumor or did you go to battle with it to save your life?” The other lawyer was so startled by the analogy that he actually invited Baruch to make a presentation on Israel to a group of lawyers, all of whom had biases against Israel.
“Lawyers are supposed to be evidence-based, which means they should be on the forefront of defending Israel,” Baruch observes. In 2010, during the Gaza flotilla crisis, he was so outraged by the drumbeat of overwhelmingly negative press against Israel that he launched a blog called American Trial Attorneys in Defense of Israel. The blog includes links to Israel-related news articles, videos (including from Aish.com) blog posts and other commentary, and even the occasional parody, all meant to educate and enlighten readers about Jewish spirituality and Israel realpolitik. He credits Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz’s books Chutzpah and The Case for Israel in particular as an inspiration for his own advocacy.
“In a court of law, I’d have the opportunity to impeach Israel’s defamers. My blog is a cyberspace court of law,” he says. A Jewish judge confided to Baruch that his notions about Israel had previously been formed by the reflexively leftist editorial pages of the Los Angeles Times. This judge, whose name had been floated as a U.S. Supreme Court nominee, has since done a complete turnaround on Israel in part from reading the blog, and has even taken groups of colleagues there. Baruch is satisfied that the blog is having an impact. “Besides, the attorney reading the blog today might be a senator tomorrow.” Baruch has spoken several times on the case for Israel, including on behalf of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA.)
Baruch and son Yehuda holding
Sefer Torah dedicated to Hindy Cohen
It is clear when talking to Baruch Cohen that this man loves a good fight. “I’m a student of Sun Tzu's The Art of War,” he says. “I'm tenacious like a pit bull when in fight-mode.” From his spacious ninth-floor office in midtown Los Angeles with floor-to-ceiling windows, on a clear day he can see all the way to the Pacific Ocean from one view and the skyscrapers downtown from the opposite view. Before a big case, he likes to pace the office in his stocking feet, practicing his arguments. “This is my lucky stress-reliever and helps focus my mind, like Bruce Willis in Diehard.”
It’s not surprising that a man who channels Bruce Willis and Sun Tzu would also boast of his “aggressive” legal tactics in advertisements for his practice. He was also delighted to hear that an attorney from the opposing side in one case was warned, “Be afraid, be very afraid” of going against him. Don’t these “scorched earth” tactics and overt aggressiveness feed into negative Jewish stereotypes? Aren’t they at odds with ideals of Jewish justice and sensitivity?
“Not at all,” he states. “I’m aggressive but not abrasive. When a client is pursued wrongfully, it’s therapeutic to have someone strong on their side. It is rehabilitative for a broken and downtrodden client to have someone willing to fight for them to the max. As long as it is done with honesty and integrity, I see no contradiction. And sometimes the best offense is a good defense.”
Baruch is an avid fan of Aish.com. “There is nothing out there in the Jewish community as vast and comprehensive as Aish.com for Torah insights, history, or inspiration. When someone asks me a question about Judaism, nine times out of ten I’ll find the perfect thing on Aish.com, copy the article in an email, and highlight the areas of particular interest to that person. It lends credibility to what I have said and expands on it.”
Fighting on behalf of clients and on behalf of the State of Israel is nothing compared to the fight Baruch and his wife, Adina, fought for two and half years to save the life of their eldest daughter, Hindy. Diagnosed with cancer just days after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Hindy passed away at 17. Asked about the impact of his daughter’s death, Baruch sighs heavily and momentarily hangs his head.
“Without question this was the darkest and most traumatic event of our lives. This sort of tragic death can crush a person. In my darkness, Rabbi Boruch Gradon handed me a letter from Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, written to the head of the Lakewood Yeshiva after the head of the yeshiva became a bereaved parent. I was so lost, but began to feel lifted knowing that the Torah offers strength and direction, even for this type of tragedy.”
Baruch began collecting other such letters, written by righteous and deeply knowledgeable Jews on the topic of consolation. He translated letters from Hebrew, but also collected letters written in English, including one from Abraham Lincoln, who lost two sons. Baruch became consumed by this project, eventually collecting 700 pages of letters, poems and songs that helped him grieve and heal. He published the book, called Reb Yochanan’s Bone: Inspiration to the Bereaved Parent, named for a rabbi of the Talmudic era who lost 10 children. Baruch has given away approximately 250 copies of this book to others struggling through bereavement.
Being wrapped in my grief was isolating me from everyone. I couldn’t allow the darkness to consume me.”
“If anyone had suggested when I was in the darkest point in my grief that there was ever a day I could be happy, laugh and sing again, I would have said it’s impossible. That day eventually came after years of hard work, attending a group for bereaved parents, humbling myself to learn from the writings of others, and realizing that it’s not only about me. Being wrapped in my grief was isolating me from everyone.”
“People grieve differently, at different paces. Learning to respect my wife’s space was an extremely important epiphany,” he observes. “The moment I was able to focus on how other members of my family were coping it became healing for me.”
Baruch realized that as a trial attorney, his business was about understanding other people’s causes. “I decided to be my own lawyer, to champion my own cause. Grief had become the greatest adversary of my life. It has a gravitational force of its own, and I couldn’t allow the darkness to consume me.”
“Eventually, I started to carve out a path to recognize happiness from tragedy, simcha m’toch tzara. God measures the tragedy and sends us signs that He’s still with us. God gave me many signs showing me He had not abandoned me, and that was a substantial lifeline.”
“One Friday night at shul, I was still in my own personal hell, not paying attention to the davening. Then I heard the line from Lecha Dodi, “Too long have I dwelled in the valley of tears,” and I felt that was a signal from God. I decided that was time to get my second wind. The book was finished, we had dedicated a Torah scroll in Hindy’s memory, my in-laws had dedicated an ambulance in her memory to Hatzalah, and we had founded the Hindy Cohen Memorial Fund at Bais Yaakov of Los Angeles, where Hindy went to school.” This fund sponsors an annual day of learning for parents, as well as the Halleli Song and Dance Production, produced by the school every other year. “The time had come to reclaim some happiness.”
Finally, he felt the pain migrating out of him at a healthy pace. But based on his experiences, he has been shocked at the well-meaning yet insensitive things people often say when paying a condolence call. “Don’t try to suggest to anyone in this situation that they know why the tragedy happened, or that the bereaved family was ‘chosen’ for this mission because of any elevated spiritual status. I found that maddening, and I rebelled against it all.”
At a huge price, Baruch says the experience made him a deeper person. “I had never noticed people in wheelchairs until I went to Disneyland pushing a wheelchair, and then all I noticed was wheelchairs. I used to have some envy for the trappings of the rich and famous. Now the very oxygen I breathe is different. I can sense pain in a person, and I focus on good people with good values.”
Despite his many years in an emotional wilderness, Baruch says that his daughter’s death does not define him. “I know my child wants me to be in a positive mindset. I don’t wear it on my sleeve, but will share it with people who complain bitterly about their lives. I try to convey to them, ‘I am with you in your pain. You are not alone.’”
In public talks, Baruch emphasizes what he has learned about how to trust in God, the power of imagination, learning to rid yourself of envy, and how to carve out happiness from any scenario you are in. “If you are sick in bed, okay, you are not blind. If you are blind, well, you are alive. I believe that God is always holding and supporting you.”