Mr. Cohen of Ballachulish Ferry
Last week, I gave a Zoom talk for the Scottish Jewish Archive center. I spoke about my experiences as the rabbi of the largest Jewish congregation in Scotland, the Giffnock and Newlands Hebrew Congregation, between 1968 and 1971.
This was my first full-time position as a rabbi after I returned from my studies in Jerusalem, and it was an amazing and rewarding period in my life. But there is one memory that keeps coming back to me, which I did not mention in my presentation. It was my brief encounter with Mr. Cohen at Ballachulish Ferry.
In 1968, I drove up across the border from England to Scotland. And please, never ever confuse or merge the two, for fear of offending a good Scot, Jewish or not. Glasgow proved to be a warm, enthusiastic community made up of Jews from across the whole spectrum of Jewish life, from strongly secular to fanatically religious. Like any other Jewish community, there were rivalries and enmities, grudges and resentments, rich and poor. Rabbis were competing for authority and influence. But there was a warmth and a degree of hospitality that simply bowled me over.
My focus as a rabbi would be to reach out to the wider community, as well as making the services in the synagogue more accessible. I wanted to project an image of Orthodoxy that did not exclude appreciating the positive side of secular culture and modernity — more open-minded, tolerant, and less judgmental. And as a result, I went out of my way to be accessible to young and old, and mix socially. It was an amazingly rewarding and exciting experience, to be so welcomed and appreciated.
Glasgow, along the river Clyde, was once an industrial powerhouse, but when I arrived, it was already in decline. But outside and beyond, there was another world of highland, rugged beauty — mountains, lakes, and islands. It was a magical world just a short drive north of the city.
Baruch Mendelson was an avuncular, lovable, kind, and generous man. He was the heartbeat of the religious life of the Giffnock synagogue. His daughter had married my second cousin, and it was through my grandfather — M.J. Cohen of Cardiff — that he had heard about me and invited me to come up to Giffnock to interview for the position of rabbi. He took me under his wing, and schooled me in the politics of the community and whom and what to avoid.
One day when I was in his office, he told me that there was a man called Cohen who had once belonged to the synagogue. But Cohen had been humiliated by a rabbinical authority over a personal matter, and had sworn that he would have nothing more to do with the community. Baruch had been a good friend of his, but nothing he could do would bring the man back. Baruch had discovered that Mr. Cohen had moved all the way up to Ballachulish Ferry, and he thought that I, as a personable newcomer not tarred by the brush of rabbinical authority, might succeed in winning him back.
Two weeks after Purim in 1969, I drove up through the magnificent countryside. The drive north of Glasgow rose past Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park via Glen Coe, the scene of the internecine massacre in 1692, towards Fort William and Inverness.
I arrived at Ballachulish to find a small village, a row of cottages and modest homes, along the water leading down to the ferry ramp.
I had no address or phone number, so I went into the small store/post office and asked if anyone knew a Mr. Cohen. No one had any idea. But they did tell me there was a single man, an outsider from Glasgow, who had rented a cottage nearby. I walked up to it and saw a small mezuzah on the doorpost. I knocked, and an elderly man with a knitted beanie opened the door. “Mr. Cohen,” I asked?” “Who wants him?” came the gruff reply. “Baruch Mendelson has sent me to find you,” I replied. “I’m not coming back if that’s what you’re here for, laddie” he replied.
Nevertheless, he invited me in. There were a few books of Jewish interest and a menorah, but no telephone or television. He loosened up after a few whiskies, and he asked for news about the Glasgow Jewish community. He told me that he had sworn never to return, and he was not going to change his mind. But he wouldn’t tell me why or what had happened. All he would say was that he never wanted to have anything to do ever again with rabbis or religion. To my surprise, before I left, he asked me if I would come back before Yom Kippur and say Kaddish with him for his parents.
Six months later, I went to Ballachulish Ferry again, delighted to have an excuse to return to the beauty of the Highlands. But when I got there, Mr. Cohen’s cottage was empty. The mezuzah had been removed, and no one in the village had any idea where he was. I never saw or heard of him again. Was he dead or alive? Had he fled to avoid detection? Did he have second thoughts about seeing another rabbi? I never knew. But to this day, Ballachulish and Mr. Cohen have a very special place in my heart. And thanks to Mr. Cohen, I vowed that I would never use my position as a rabbi to hurt or offend anyone in the name of religion. A chance encounter had a profound impact.
The author is a rabbi and writer currently living in New York.