Rav Refoel Yisroel Yaakov ‘Yankel’ Cohen


Rav Refoel Yisroel Yaakov “Yankel” Cohen, who began at Telshe Yeshiva as a 13-year-old student in 1951 and remained an integral part of the Wickliffe yeshiva for more than 50 years as a teacher of Talmud, died Jan. 12. He was 82.

Cohen, who was the mashgiach of students, was honored in 2017 at the yeshiva’s 75th anniversary dinner with the Harbotzas Torah tribute at Young Israel of Greater Cleveland in Beachwood, where Cohen belonged.

In his role as mashgiach or supervisor of students at Telshe Yeshiva, Cohen acted as a mentor and facilitated the study of Talmud for more than 50 years.

“He’s brilliant, a genius,” Dovid Greenwald, Telshe Yeshiva’s development director, told the Cleveland Jewish News at the time. “His analytical mind is able to dissect a piece of Talmud and really break it down so students can understand it and get a grasp of the concept. Having someone like Rabbi Cohen brings that level of study to a new plateau; it’s more elevated. … He’s literally someone who lives and breathes his Talmud study all day long.”

Rabbi Israel Schneider, dormitory supervisor, said Cohen touched the lives of more than 1,000 students during his tenure at Telshe Yeshiva. He had deeply focused concentration, and he utilized a technique of analysis known as hakirah, in which many facets are considered around a single text, Schneider said.

“He was a fount of original thoughts daily,” Schneider said. “He was in that perpetual quest of finding that essential quality of that which he was studying.”

In recent years, Cohen published a compilation of his writings in a volume in Hebrew which translates as “The Delights of Yaakov.”

He continued teaching, offering lectures by phone even after receiving a cancer diagnosis two years ago. At that point, he and his wife, Ruth, relocated from Cleveland Heights to Teaneck, N.J., so he could pursue medical treatment close to family.

“My father took an intimate interest in his own children’s lives and offered advice and strategy,” his son, Michael Cohen, said in remarks at his funeral. “My father never criticized the way we raised our children.”

Instead, he said, his father would use his actions as a role model.

“Abba loved his children and grandchildren and always made time to give them as much time as they wanted,” Cohen said.

Born May 6, 1938, to Bella and Louis Cohen in Chicago, Yankel as he was known, was named Jerry Cohen.

His life had been, “all-American,” his granddaughter, Kaitlyn Respler, told the CJN Jan. 18. She said her grandfather had been an accomplished athlete as a young boy. When he arrived at Telshe Yeshiva, he threw his passion from baseball to Torah study.

He was matched with Ruth Fischbein, a native of Israel who grew up in Williamsburg, N.Y. The two married at the Bensonhurst Chateau in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1963 and had four children, sending all of them to Hebrew Academy of Cleveland and the boys to Telshe Yeshiva for high school.

In addition to his wife, Cohen leaves four children: Tziporah (Don) Respler of Teaneck; Mordechai (Rena) Cohen of New York City; Yitzchak (Suzy) Cohen of Teaneck; and Michael (Miriam) Cohen of Englewood, N.J.; 18 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

His funeral was held at Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood Cliffs, N.J. Burial was at Har HaMenuchot in Jerusalem.

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