Bradley Cohen, 30, has ascended the Nepalese Himalayas, camped in the dangerous wilderness of the Chinese Northern Korean border, and weathered summer typhoons during his hike across a Japanese island. But today he climbs the peaks of an even more arduous, unmapped terrain – seeking his own Jewish identity in the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem.
A few weeks before Passover, he will set out on a challenging trek throughout the Land of Israel in behalf of his newly-launched organization "All for the Kids," which collects funds for desperately needy children.
Cohen, a full-time Torah student at Aish HaTorah, grew up in a Reform Jewish home in North London and has a close relationship with his South African-born parents. Cohen's father is a lawyer, and his mother is a doctor with her own practice in North London. Cohen believes that his own quest for truth is a family legacy. He describes his father as a man of exceptional integrity: "Once, when we went together on a train journey, there was no clerk in the station booth to sell us tickets. My father, who is meticulously honest, pushed the money into the slat of the office where the clerk should have been sitting. Dad didn't want to take a train ride without paying honestly for it."
A good student who enjoyed sports, at 16 Cohen represented Great Britain in the Maccabiah Games in table tennis and at 17 he earned the Gold Medal in the American Maccabi Games. At that point, he visited Israel for three months, working the fields on a kibbutz. He returned to England and completed a B. A. in Philosophy at Manchester University. Immediately after graduation, he took off for an Asian jaunt that extended for over six years.
My travels were a quest for purpose, meaning, and life direction.
"It was no ordinary journey," he admits. "I wasn't just bumming around. My travels were a quest for purpose, meaning, and life direction. In England, after finishing university, I looked around and saw a lot of emptiness. I knew that life must be about more than working at a job you hate, difficulties in marriage, partaking in various forms of escape and waiting all year for a two-week vacation."
"My philosophy studies got me thinking, but I never thought about Judaism," he admits. "I enjoyed the traditional things I had grown up with. We lit candles and had nice meals together, but it really didn't mean anything. And the religious people I would see in England, well, they seemed so unapproachable."
His spiritual journey in Asia began in Sri Lanka. He lived four months in a small village, teaching English to the staff of the cooperative farm and a young Buddhist monk. He continued on to Thailand, where he lived a year and a half. Cohen learned fluent Thai, supporting himself by teaching English and Buddhist philosophy in several universities. He also participated in several ten-day silent retreats on Buddhist philosophy and practice, awakening at 4 a.m. to meditate.
Cohen then spent a year in Korea training in the rigorous martial arts called Taekwondo and two months in China, achieving mastery in Kung fu. His trip to China culminated in a five day expedition to a mountain on the Chinese North Korean border. Then, he spent a year teaching English in Japan and learning the martial arts Aikido and Qigong.
I was living a real life of helping others, washing clothes in the river, and teaching English.
He lived in India for two six-month periods and became personally involved caring for desperately needy orphaned and abandoned children. "I went to Bihar, the poorest state in India, and lived in an orphanage of 150 children in a city called Bodhgaya. These children live in abject poverty, sleeping on the hard floor, lacking proper food, without a chance for the education that can break the cycle of poverty and abuse.
I had come from a privileged upbringing in North London, but I finally felt I was living a real, true life, helping other people, preparing their simple food, washing clothes in the river, teaching them English. These children in India are lucky if they get one bowl of porridge a day. It makes me appreciate every mouthful of food I eat."
Cohen shows a photo of Ajit, an eight-year old boy from the Indian orphanage. "Ajit wants to become a doctor, and he's a bright, responsible kid, capable of doing so. In the orphanage infirmary, when the medical team was overwhelmed and short-staffed, I actually saw this little kid administer immunization shots to babies – and he did it perfectly!
But without an education, he has no chance in the world to become a doctor. And Ajit is denied education, purely because there is no money for it. The orphanage hardly is able to feed the children, let alone educate them."
Then Cohen flew to South Africa to attend a wedding, where he met Rabbi Mordechai Nissim. Hours of animated dialogue later, the wedding was long over, but the two were still deep in the midst of conversation about God, Judaism, and the meaning of life.
Cohen had never encountered anything like this before – a rabbi whose words opened up for him Judaism's vibrant spiritual truth. "I returned to Nepal, but this time with Rabbi Akiva Tatz's book Living Inspired and Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan's Jewish Meditation in my backpack."
He spent two months in the Nepalese Himalayas, including an 11-day trek into the mountains. He traveled to Japan for several months and worked teaching English at university there. He hiked around the Shikoku Island, a trek of 1200 kilometers (750 miles), battling the summer heat and two typhoons and stopping to meditate at 88 Buddhist temples along the way. His only map to help him navigate around the island was written in Japanese.
"I realize now that I was not finding the truth in any of these places," muses Cohen, "and kept seeking out yet another country, yet another language, yet another tradition."
Jerusalem – There and Back
Throughout these travels, he kept constantly in touch with Rabbi Nissim, learning more about Judaism, and gradually introducing Jewish observance into his life. Cohen took a short trip back to England, where he forged a relationship with Rabbi Daniel Rowe, an Aish HaTorah rabbi in Cohen's own North London neighborhood, Hendon. And in January 2007, he arrived in Jerusalem, where he took the three-week Essentials course and stayed for three months. "I couldn't tear myself away," he recalls, "especially from Rabbi Moshe Zeldman's philosophy classes. I would speak with him for hours each day. Every time he proved me wrong – I would get so excited."
Cohen decided then to visit his sister in the hospital where she worked as a specialist in the treatment of infectious diseases. Dr. Danielle Cohen, 32, was working in a hospital in Malawi, a country located near Mozambique in southern Africa, where she treated patients with malaria and tuberculosis.
On his visit to Africa, Cohen learned the language and got to know the staff and children of another orphanage called Kuunika, where over 200 children live in wretched poverty. They lack even the most basic of food, let alone educational opportunities. "I got to know the children well – their names, their personalities, their hopes and their dreams," he says. It was in Malawi that Cohen began to crystallize his goal of launching an organization "All for the Kids," to collect funds for disadvantaged children, funds to be used for vital education.
Each person is a unique soul with a special role to play in the world.
He returned to Jerusalem in the end of 2007, just in time for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, and since then has been learning full time at Aish HaTorah . "It's an inspiring place, a Jewish education in an open environment," he says. "I used to fear that if I became religious, I would have to be black and white, losing my own real self and talents. I found at Aish that in Judaism, each person is a unique neshama (soul) who has a special role to play in the world. Every Jew has his unique way to serve the Almighty."
Trekking Across Israel
Cohen will live out his own individual form of Jewish self-expression by embarking on a grueling hike across the length and breadth of the Land of Israel, a fundraising effort aimed at gaining financial support for impoverished children. The challenging trek extends some 950 kilometers, from Tel Dan in the northern Lebanese border to southern Eilat, and includes mountains and waterfalls as well as deserts, beaches, and cities.
Some of the funds are allocated to two projects for underprivileged Jewish children in Israel. One is called Beit Hayeled, where abandoned and abused youngsters are nurtured at a warm, loving children's home on a religious kibbutz in northern Israel. Another is the Forgotten People Fund, helping the plight of Ethiopian Jewish children in Netanya. That organization strives to alleviate the suffering caused by poverty, unemployment and domestic violence in the Ethiopian community.
Some of the funds raised will also go to support African children in the Malawi orphanage where he recently volunteered. This children's home, run by the Kuunika organization, feeds and educates over 200 children.
"The kids have so much potential and desire to achieve, but no real opportunity to realize their dreams," asserts Cohen. "I know the children well, since I spent time there teaching them, working the land, singing, dancing, doing exercise with them, trying to instill inspiration and hope into their lives." Now he wants to raise funds to give these impoverished African children food, a better education and ongoing support.
Cohen is convinced that it is his duty to help both Jewish and non-Jewish children, not to limit his charitable activities only to the needs of Jewish youngsters. "I don't believe God would take me to see these non-Jewish kids in need, if He didn't want me to help them," Cohen declares. "Every human being is created in God's image. The Almighty loves them also, and it's my duty to do something about their plight."
"I believe that we have a duty as Jews to look after our own Jewish 'family' first and foremost, and we shouldn't be ashamed to do so. Once we sort ourselves out, we can be of more help to the rest of the world. However, our duty does not necessarily end there. Our purpose is to fix the world (tikkun olam) and be a light unto the nations."
visit Bradley online at dovber.org