By: Maj Michael (Chaim) Cohen, USAF Ret.
A life in service leads one to unexpected vistas and unimaginable rewards. That is the experience of Major Michael (Chaim) Cohen, US Air Force (Ret.), a C-130 navigator turned Jewish lay leader, and eventually, the human impetus that allowed the Aleph Military program to grow to the powerhouse it is today.
Proud military blood flows through the Cohen family: Cohen’s father was a World War II Marine, a veteran of the Battle of Okinawa (where Cohen the son later served as well); his Uncle Victor served in the Army during the Korean War; while Cohen’s father-in-law was in the Navy, as is a niece, PO Marion Kamarowski. When asked why he joined the Air Force, Maj Cohen responds, “I’m very patriotic and love public service. But I also wanted to see the world, and considering that the best way to see the world is from the cockpit of an aircraft, I figured it would be pretty good to have my own plane to do so!”
As much as Maj Cohen dreamed of flying, a quiet internal voice also pushed him to find out more about what it means to be Jewish. He had grown up in South Florida, attended Hebrew school before his bar mitzvah, and his family belonged to a traditional synagogue. But aside from that, his Jewish education was minimal. “I felt it was in my DNA to be a practicing Jew, but I didn’t know how to go about it,” he muses. Over time, he made a personal commitment to learn more about his heritage. Little by little, he incorporated elements of Judaism in his life. While in college, he stopped eating pork, and eventually started doing his laundry on Sunday instead of Saturday. Cohen describes his path to Judaism as “evolutionary, rather than revolutionary,” as every year he would find himself taking on a new, small commitment.
Cohen began his Air Force career by joining AFROTC as a freshman at Florida State University in 1973. After graduating in 1977, he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant, and entered flight training the following year at Williams AFB near Phoenix, Arizona.
The newly-minted 2Lt Cohen was assigned as a navigator to the Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Service (ARRS), the predecessor to today’s Guardian Angel squadrons. The rescue squadron was a composite unit, and included fixed and rotary wing aircraft. Cohen’s own responsibility was with the venerable “Trash Hauler” HC-130s, modified Hercules with special equipment to track aircraft in distress and air refuel helicopters.
On missions, Cohen’s HC-130 would search for debris, survivors, then radio the coordinates to an accompanying helicopter and air refuel it. The helo would then drop PJs in a basket to rescue, administer first aid, or otherwise supply the people on the ground. Cohen was also responsible for remotely navigating the helo and providing air traffic control reporting for it—all in the time before the introduction of GPS navigation.
As a result of the 1981 Iran embassy hostage rescue fiasco, the Air Rescue Service was reorganized into USAF Special Operations. Cohen’s squadron received intensive training and more equipment as they integrated into the newly-formed Joint Special Operations Command, losing some of their Air Force perks. Being used to Air Force accommodations, Cohen’s squadron had to adjust to the more austere Army conditions while supporting Delta Force, Seal Teams, and Army Rangers. Still, the rescue teams had tremendous esprit de corps and finely-tuned teamwork, which made flying in support of US Joint Special Operations “customers” very rewarding.
What Cohen loved most about air rescue missions was simply saving lives. Most of the 30-plus rescues he flew through his career were “vanilla” rescues—retrieving people lost at sea, as opposed to the extensively trained-for “black ops” rescues, a downed pilot in a combat zone or hostage rescue situation. While Cohen proudly served his country, he found himself to be a bit of a pacifist, and this position fit perfectly within his internal values.
As a navigator, Cohen’s responsibility was to plan and direct the missions. He found the job alternately very intense at some times, but very relaxed at others, with lots of down time in between, and often “no one telling us where to go or what to do other than to go put some time on the airplane”—an ideal world for a young flyer! Cohen recalls a deployment in Iceland flying at 300 to 500 feet above the ground at 200 MPH, with his vision filled with spectacular beaches, cascading waterfalls, and castles. “I remember thinking, ‘And I get paid for this?!’ Being in the air is the best possible vantage point, and I loved it.”
After stops in Mather and McClellan AFBs and Kadena AB, Japan, Cohen found himself back in Florida, stationed at Eglin Air Force Base. That’s where life began to shift ever so imperceptibly. During that period, an Aleph rabbi by the name of Rabbi Moshe Horn used to visit Eglin AFB and provide services for the Jewish prisoners at the minimum security camp located at the base. Eventually, the inmates and airmen formed one congregation to leverage Rabbi Horn’s time. When Cohen was appointed as the installation’s Jewish lay leader, the two men became close, with Horn providing both instructions and insights into the Judaism that Cohen had always wanted to know more about.
At some point, Rabbi Horn invited the young navigator to stay with his family for Shabbat, and Cohen took his friend up on the offer while on leave in South Florida. The mini-vacation ended up being a life changer. Until that weekend, Cohen had never taken in the full Shabbat experience, and was deeply touched by what he saw. “I was blown away by the peace in the home. The children joyfully shared what they had learned in school about that week’s Torah portion, and there was a calm spiritual energy that just exuded from their beings. I had never seen so many young children looking so sharp and behaving so nicely. I said to myself, ‘I don’t know how to get this, but I want this Shabbat thing in my life.’” Indeed, as his career wound down, Cohen began integrating more and more elements of Shabbat observance.
That fall, shortly before his retirement, Cohen was given the honor of providing the opening presentation at a Miami-based conference of military lay leaders, with the hope of inspiring the group in their volunteer roles. The lead organizer, Ch, Col Joel Schwartzman, also tasked Cohen with creating a casual Saturday night program for the conference. Having no ideas, Cohen turned to Rabbi Horn. “Any suggestions for us?” he queried. On a lark, Horn invited the entire group to visit the Aleph Institute. Already over a decade into its existence, Aleph had become a positive disruptor in the prison world, providing Jewish inmates with supplies, books, and advocacy. Horn was a regular volunteer for their programs, and he thought the military lay leaders might be able to learn a thing or two from the dynamic leader of the organization, Rabbi Sholom Lipskar.
As Cohen was preparing for this meeting, a thought popped into his head: What if there was a fresh organization that was focused on sponsoring programs for Jews in the military? At the time, consistent supplies and support for military Jews was severely lacking, a point of frustration for Cohen and many others. That thought was the seed of an idea, and it lay quietly at the back of his head. That night, the group met Rabbi Lipskar, who greeted them with his characteristic energy, charisma, and graciousness over pizza, and screened inspirational videos of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Rabbi Lipskar then told the group that he had been tasked by the Rebbe to minister to several groups outside of the standard Jewish community, including Jews in the military. He stated that he had always wanted to expand Aleph’s reach and impact into the military community, but the opportunity never presented itself. With a brand new possibility now appearing, Rabbi Lipskar turned to Cohen and asked him point-blank, “What’s being done for Jews in the military?” Cohen answered honestly, “There’s not much going on. We’re pretty much being left to fend for ourselves.” Rabbi Lipskar responded, “We are going to step into this void, but we need someone to create a plan. Can we depend on you?” Never one to turn away from a virtuous challenge, Cohen didn’t hesitate to accept Rabbi Lipskar’s offer. At that moment, the seed began to germinate.
Soon after, Cohen retired, seemingly concluding his military career. But first on his post-retirement to do list was to create a plan for Aleph’s military involvement and present it to Rabbi Lipskar. A few months after their first meeting, Cohen came to Miami once again, this time via sailboat—another hobby of his—and brought a 45-page assessment and proposal. Rabbi Lipskar greeted him warmly. Upon reviewing the proposal, in which Cohen suggested that Aleph would fill a critical niche by using their existing system to provide Jews in the military with prayer books, Torah study material, tefillin, and send rabbis to bases, Rabbi Lipskar responded by inviting Cohen to join Aleph and launch the program himself. “How soon can you come work for me and set this up?” he asked.
Cohen was completely flabbergasted by the immediate offer. But as soon as he regained his bearings, he agreed. In 1995, Cohen relocated to Miami Beach to spearhead Aleph’s brand new military program.
“So that’s how the whole Aleph Military program got started,” Cohen says. “Honestly, the cards were stacked against Rabbi Lipskar, but he said, ‘We’re doing it anyway.’ And we did!” Looking back at the providential twists, Cohen is still amazed: It was not until the end of his 16-plus years in the Air Force that he was struck by the idea, yet just two hours later, the Aleph Institute took on the role. “If that isn’t the hand of Hashem, I don’t know what is,” Cohen concludes.
One of Cohen’s early programs with Aleph was organizing weekend retreats, also known as Shabbatons. He focused on areas with several bases, and recruited Jewish service members to participate. Some of these retreats were held in proximity to the bases, and others were held on Aleph’s home court in Surfside.
One particular retreat, held in New York’s Catskill Mountains, was memorable—but appeared to be a disaster. Several people showed up who weren’t prepared for a full Shabbat experience. It wasn’t what they’d been expecting, and they decided to leave early Shabbat morning. Cohen was so upset that he ran after the group to try to convince them to stay, but to his chagrin, they demurred. Just four or five people remained, leading Cohen to consider the program as a total failure.
A few years later, Cohen found himself in Jacksonville, Florida for a friend’s bar mitzvah, and a woman approached him. She asked, “Do you remember me? I was at the Shabbaton you made in the Catskills three years ago.” Remembering it vividly, Cohen cringed. But the woman responded warmly, “That was my first experience with Orthodox Judaism—I now keep Shabbat, and live a fully Jewish life!”
Reframing that weekend, Cohen concludes, “What I love about Judaism is that you get credit for your effort, not just the exact results. But as it turned out, even when I thought I had failed at that Shabbaton, it was a success—including planting the seed that caused someone’s Judaism to blossom and grow.”
After five years with Aleph, Cohen felt it was time to infuse new blood into the program to keep it invigorated, and that’s when he moved to Lakewood, New Jersey with his wife, Shirley. Looking back, he is still quite fond of the program he fathered. “We’ve come very far,” he says. “I am proud of this program, and consider it the greatest achievement of my life.” Cohen is extremely grateful for his time supporting those who serve. “It was amazing to be able to be a conduit for Rabbi Lipskar and Hashem to help people in the military.”
Cohen continues to infuse his life with passionate endeavors. He has set up several non-profit Jewish organizations since leaving Aleph, including Ohr Moshe, named after his late father, for Jewish boys in the neighborhood to visit nursing homes and play sports. He also established the Shul Decorum Association, which endeavors to inspire people to “talk less and daven more.” Shuls all over the country have adopted this program. Cohen says his work with Aleph Institute gave him the inspiration, skills, and confidence to start these organizations. “I can’t say enough about Rabbi Lipskar for what he did for me and others,” he says.
You might say Someone navigated the right people to the right place at the right time.
To contact Major Cohen, email: [email protected].
Originally published in the Pesach 2023 issue of The Jewish American Warrior.