Cohen, Joseph Isaac

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COHEN, JOSEPH ISAAC (1896–1981), Sephardi congregational rabbi and communal leader in Havana and Atlanta and active Zionist. Born in Istanbul, Cohen was educated at an Alliance Israélite Universelle school, the prestigious Galata Saray gymnasium, and studied law at the university. In the Turkish army, he rose to the rank of captain in intelligence and served from 1915 to 1918 in the Dardanelles, Syria, and Ereẓ Israel. He was taken prisoner by the British in Beersheba. After the war, he remained in Ereẓ Israel, working for the Jewish Agency and the Jewish National Fund; he then immigrated to Cuba in 1920. He set up a Jewish day school, Colegio Herzel, and served as its headmaster, and as an active Zionist, he was co-founder of the Zionist Organization and the Jewish National Fund in Cuba. He served as an active spokesman for the Jewish community in its dealings with the Cuban authorities. In 1930, after being ordained privately by local rabbis in Cuba, he became head of the Sephardi congregation Shevet Ahim Union Hebrea in Havana.

Cohen subsequently served the Atlanta Sephardi Congregation Or Veshalom of Rhodian and Turkish Jews from 1934 until his death in 1981. In 1935, he reorganized the Talmud Torah, added a Sunday religious school for pre-kindergarten until 10th grade, and hired accredited teachers for both.

He encouraged his Sephardi congregants to become active and integrate into the general Jewish community and Federation philanthropic activities. He placed emphasis on giving to charity locally for orphans, Jewish welfare needs, and causes in Israel and elsewhere abroad, i.e., through the Jewish National Fund, and the return of *Marranos to Judaism in Oporto, Portugal.

For his efforts, he received the Bringer of Light award from the Jewish National Fund of America, and in 1969 he was elected president of the newly formed Atlanta Rabbinical Association.

Upon retirement in 1969, he was elected rabbi emeritus of his congregation and continued serving the congregation and community until his death. He was succeeded by Rabbi S. Robert Ishay, a native of Morocco, who had served previously in Manchester and Rhodesia.


S. Beton (ed.), Sephardim & a History of Congregation Or VeShalom (1981), 108–110; J. Papo, Sephardim in Twentieth Century America, In Search of Unity (1987), 281–83.

[Yitzchak Kerem (2nd ed.)]