Rabbi Bernard M. Cohen (HUC-JIR/New York '56), will receive an honorary degree from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College (SMWC) during the college’s 169th commencement ceremonies May 8. Cohen is the first Rabbi to receive an honorary degree from SMWC, which is the nation’s oldest Catholic liberal arts college for women.
Cohen, Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Judea of Tarzana and West Hills, Los Angeles, Calif., has described Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College as “pioneering and innovative.” In its tradition of inclusiveness, SMWC broke new ground by introducing “ecumenism” to its Catholic campus in the 1960s. Ecumenism refers to the religious unity or cooperation of several faiths.
Cohen, the first Rabbi to teach at the Catholic college, was a visiting professor from 1963 to 1970. He taught Jewish history and contemporary Judaism. “It was a time when the word ‘ecumenism’ entered our vocabulary and it was my strong feeling that I could make a contribution to the process by participating in teaching,” said Cohen. “The classes that dealt with Jewish History and Contemporary Judaism was a way to bring to the students at SMWC a relevant involvement in this learning process.”
In the same decade in which the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited forms of discrimination, the pairing of a Jewish rabbi with a Catholic institution garnered national attention. The Associated Press, United Press International, Reuters, The New York Times, and the CBS Evening News featured Cohen’s work at SMWC. The media recognized the significance of a Jewish rabbi teaching at a Catholic college and the importance of the ecumenical message that was introduced.
Cohen recalls a specific visit of a Sister of Providence to the United Hebrew Congregation in Terre Haute. Approximately 40 years ago, Sister Alexa Sulzer, SP, delivered a talk entitled: “In Order to Be a Good Christian, You Must First Be a Good Jew,” said Rabbi Cohen. “It's important to teach classes about Judaism and Jewish history," he said. "Since Judaism was and is the foundation stone of Christianity, it was important to bring this information piece to the students and the campus of SMWC.”
The course was a pilot program for the Catholic all-women’s campus. Cohen’s course included formal lectures and small group sessions outside of class hours for students to deepen their discussions and interactions. Students were able to enhance their experience and knowledge of varying cultures and faiths.
During those years, students studied the Old Testament during their first year, the New Testament the second, and had the option of an elective class in Contemporary Judaism. They were also required to take Western Civilization in their final year. “It really brought everything together — from the time of Christ forward,” said Carmen Hanson Rivera, a 1970 graduate of SMWC. “We were able to learn his perspective of theology and how there would be no Christianity without Judaism. It was really interesting.” Rivera remembers taking the class with Cohen. “He was a wonderful teacher and had a great sense of humor. It was a great class and everybody loved him.”
Today the College continues to welcome all faiths and thrives in offering a value-centered education in a Catholic tradition. “Rabbi Cohen is a pioneer in higher education for breaking new ground and becoming a teacher of ecumenism, not only in the ’60s, but throughout his life in all parts of the world,” said SMWC President David G. Behrs. “It gives us great pleasure to acknowledge Rabbi Cohen with an honorary degree for his service to SMWC.”
While a visiting professor at SMWC, Cohen also served the United Hebrew Congregation in Terre Haute, Ind., and he was a chaplain at the U.S. Penitentiary at Terre Haute for eight years.
He was nominated for a regional Emmy Award for “First Person with Dr. Cohen.” Cohen founded the Clergy Network, consisting of more than 1,000 clergy of all religions who meet to discuss mutual concerns in California, Arizona and Texas.
Cohen earned the doctor of ministry from the Claremont School of Theology, which is affiliated with The United Methodist Church. At Claremont, Cohen completed a professional project in thanatology, with specialized training to minister to people with terminal illness and their families and friends.
He received a baccalaureate from Long Island University, Brookville, N.Y., and a master of arts from Columbia University, New York City. He also earned a master’s degree in psychology from International College. In 1956, he was ordained as a rabbi and received the bachelor’s of Hebrew letters and the master’s in Hebrew letters from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, which is the nation’s oldest institution of higher Jewish education. He received an honorary doctor of divinity degree from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1981. Cohen also was a lieutenant in the U.S. Naval Reserve, 1956-1958.
Cohen resides in Westwood, Calif., with his wife, Doris. They have three sons, Jeffrey, Seth and Micah.
Founded in 1840 by Saint Mother Theodore Guerin and the Sisters of Providence, Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College (SMWC) is the oldest Catholic liberal arts college for women in the United States. Today, SMWC thrives by offering a rich liberal arts education, scholarships and financial aid opportunities to make college affordable, individual attention, a value-centered education in a Catholic tradition, and a wide variety of student leadership activities. SMWC is located on a beautiful 67-acre campus near Terre Haute, Ind., and the College offers campus-based undergraduate degree programs for women and distance undergraduate and graduate programs for women and men. By participating in this community, students develop their abilities to think critically, to communicate responsibly, to engage in lifelong learning and leadership, and to effect positive change in a global society. For more information about Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College, call 1-800-926-SMWC or visit www.smwc.edu.