When Rabbi Daniel Cohen was twenty-one years old, his mother (who was forty-four at the time) died suddenly of an aneurysm. Losing a parent unexpectedly at such a young age profoundly affected him. “We were speaking on the phone one day, then she was gone the next,” Rabbi Cohen recalls. His mother had taught him the art of gratitude; his father implored him from a young age to search for his personal mission in life, but despite already being a deep thinker, this tragedy added a sense of urgency to his existence. He didn’t want to waste a moment when it came to improving himself and making the world a better place.
He became a rabbi and in the course of twenty years in the rabbinate (most recently at Agudath Sholom in Stamford, Ct – his congregants included former Senator Joe Lieberman), Rabbi Cohen has shared this message with the people in his shul, but decided it was time to reach an even larger group. After conducting hundreds of funerals, it occurred to him a few years ago that there is a moment that all people experience at a funeral as they’re hearing the hespedim (eulogies). They can’t help but wonder, “What will they say about me?” Rabbi Cohen realized that the urgency of that moment could inspire people to grow.
So with this idea Rabbi Cohen began writing a book which opens by telling the reader to picture that he’s at his own funeral and asks him to consider how his friends and family would speak about him if he died today. The book walks the reader through a seven step plan to help him become the kind of person he’d hope to one day be. The book’s title (due out in Spring 2016): “What Will They Say About You When You’re Gone? Seven principles for reverse engineering your life.”
Rabbi Cohen explains, “People often reassess their priorities during a time of tragedy or crisis and only then consider what they can do to change someone else’s life. The book proposes that a reader reflect on how they want to be remembered in hopes of rousing them to act now.” Rabbi Cohen notes how Pirkei Avos is replete with injunctions to act before it’s too late.
The book includes interviews with many people of note including: actress Mayim Bialik, Senator Joe Lieberman, former mayor of New York City, Rudy Guliani, director and producer, Ron Howard, musician Chuck Leavell, and CEO of Blackstone, Steve Schwarzman, figures who are, “living a life of integrity and impact.” This is a book of positive mussar written by an Orthodox rabbi meant to inspire the masses.
Rabbi Cohen recently launched a social media campaign with a similar theme to his book called “The Elijah Moment.” Its goal is to inspire people to increase chesed in the world and make them aware that in one moment they could change someone else’s life. “In a world of violence we want to flood the world with acts of kindness” reads the tagline on the campaign’s Facebook page. The campaign asks people to pay it forward, to show others that there are random acts of giving and joy that can be performed everyday. A local news crew filmed Rabbi Cohen and his team at the start of the campaign. “We went to a local Starbucks and created a ‘flash mob of kindness.’ People were paying for other people’s coffee.” Rabbi Cohen explains. They were shocked that a complete stranger – and an Orthodox Jew – stepped in to brighten their day. As it says in tehillim (Psalms) “Olam chesed yibaneh” (The world is built on kindness). Rabbi Cohen is making the world a brighter place, inspiring others to do so too, and publicizing the essence of our beautiful heritage – one free coffee at a time.