The once thriving Jewish community of San Bernardino has dwindled to a handful but its most prominent member remains a huge presence. Rabbi Hillel Cohn says he will remain until the day that he and his wife die. When Cohn came to San Bernardino in 1963, the membership of Congregation Emanu El numbered over 2,000. The Temple has since relocated to Redlands and perhaps now lists half that amount. But numbers are deceiving as Cohn has a substantial local and national following of Jews who are not affiliated with a congregation. Locally, he is a “go to guy” who can articulate a human rights message that transcends religious and cultural lines.
Within a recent two-week span, Cohn received notice that he will receive an honorary doctorate degree from California State University, San Bernardino. That was followed with the inaugural Rabbi Hillel Cohn Endowed Lecture on the Contemporary Jewish Experience that was held at CSUSB on March 8.
In a prepared statement, CSUSB President Tomas D. Morales said Cohn’s dedication to the community is inspiring. “We are delighted to recognize Rabbi Cohn for his remarkable commitment to not only his congregation but also to the city of San Bernardino, the inland region and Cal State,” said Morales. “He has worked tirelessly to promote understanding, tolerance and diversity not just within the Jewish religion, but with all faiths. We are truly blessed and better people because of his dedication.”
In a phone interview, Cohn said San Bernardino’s 160-year-old Jewish community was the oldest in Southern California. Its numbers peaked in the 1960’s when many Jews came to work as engineers in the aerospace industry. Cohn said diminishing numbers and indifference are the biggest challenges to the Jewish community. He says overall, “It’s sad to see the lack of appreciation that religion should play in people’s lives. There seems to be a lack of values in the way we treat each other.”
Cohn was born in Germany under the rule of Adolph Hitler and came to the U.S. with his parents when just an infant. He and his wife Rita came to San Bernardino where he was co-rabbi with Rabbi Norman F. Feldheym until 1971 when he became senior rabbi of the congregation. His extensive bio includes being a leading member of the Priest-Rabbi Dialogue, a joint project of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. He has participated and produced local, regional, and international television shows such as one in collaboration with the Seventh-day Adventist TV Network. Cohn said he currently is participating in a series of Muslim/Jewish/Seventh-day Adventist forums.
Cohn allegedly retired in 2002 but since then, he’s been just as busy. He says the hardest part of being a rabbi can be the most rewarding such as being there to help during family hardships. He pointed out that ignorance remains a widespread problem when it comes to causing bigotry. He says that we’re all unknowingly guilty of general acts of bigotry. Cohn feels that since the presidential election there has been a rise in the number of hate crimes. “Nationalists have been empowered by the election of Donald Trump, who is not anti-Semitic but has surrounded himself with those who have those tendencies.”
He adds that it’s also important to know that the majority of Muslims in the world are not represented by the extremists. Cohn says also that just because someone is against the policies of Israel does not make them anti-Semitic. He explained that Arabic and Jewish people have similar religious customs and a mutual cooperation that goes back hundreds of years. “We are both descendants of Abraham and we both recognize Moses as a prophet. Hebrew and Arabic are similar languages.”
During his career Cohn has been honored with the Man in the Spirit of Martin Luther King Award by the African-American Churches of the Inland Empire; the Roy Rogers-Dale Evans Award; the Black Rose Award presented by the San Bernardino Black Culture Foundation; and Our Lady of Guadalupe Award, and the “Amar Es Entregarse” Award of the Diocese of San Bernardino.
He was previously named to the CSUSB College of Social and Behavioral Science Hall of Fame. Cohn earned his B.A. in political science from UCLA, his master’s from Hebrew Union College, and doctor of ministry degree from the Claremont School of Theology, specializing in ethics and communication.