by David Golbitz
When he was diagnosed with cancer 10 years ago, Rabbi Douglas Kohn discovered a severe drought of Jewish literature with regards to living with cancer.
“I was looking for something to read and sink my teeth into,” Rabbi Kohn said, “but there was a pronounced absence.”
After Rabbi Kohn fought off the cancer, he contacted other Jewish clergy who had also lived through cancer diagnoses and asked them to be contributors to his first book, Life, Faith, and Cancer: Jewish Journeys Through Diagnosis, Treatment, and Recovery.
“I wanted to share my voice and the voices of others who had lived with this disease,” Rabbi Kohn said.
A few years after that first book’s publication, Rabbi Kohn received a phone call from one of the contributors, one whose mother was suffering from Alzheimer’s.
“He said, ‘this is the topic we need to write about next,’” Rabbi Kohn said. “So I contacted the publisher and told them I wanted to change the topic of my next book.”
This second book, released in 2012, is titled “Broken Fragments: Jewish Experiences of Alzheimer’s Disease through Diagnosis, Adaptation, and Moving On,” and follows a similar structure as the first: 18 contributing authors, all clergy, who have had to face a loved one’s descent into Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Rabbi Kohn has plans to write a series of books about Judaism and illness.
“Somewhat unwittingly and somewhat by design, I’ve become the spokesman for Jews and illness,” Rabbi Kohn said. “I would like to put the more difficult subjects on the table, facing mortality … for the elderly community the greatest fear isn’t outliving their family, it’s outliving their minds.”
Rabbi Kohn continued: “It’s very hard to live with Alzheimer’s disease. The person with dementia needs love as much as a healthy human being, more so … they have an emotional need, the spiritual side of things is even more compelling. Sometimes the person with Alzheimer’s gets the spiritual side more than someone with a healthy mind.”
Since the release of his books, Rabbi Kohn travels all around the country talking about Judaism and illness, and ways the Jewish community can help those who are suffering.
“I applaud Temple Israel for putting these ideas on the table,” he said. “The stories of illness are vital.”
Temple Israel Rabbi Aryeh Azriel has known Rabbi Kohn for more than 20 years. He said that every rabbinate has a purpose, a specific calling.
“Rabbi Kohn’s calling clearly is caring and compassion,” Rabbi Azriel said. “These are important topics to discuss in today’s congregations, especially with the ages of some of our members.
We are fortunate to have Rabbi Kohn come and talk about these topics.”
Rabbi Kohn will deliver the d’var Torah at Temple Israel on Friday, February 28, during which he will discuss Alzheimer’s and cancer, their effects on both patient and family, and where to look for help. The service begins at 6 p.m. He is also teaching the Saturday morning Torah study class at 9 a.m. and a Sunday morning session at 10 a.m. about memory.
Following the Friday evening service, Bright Pink Omaha will be on hand to provide support and answer questions for those with a personal connection to breast or ovarian cancer. Bright Pink Omaha will also be on hand Sunday morning, after Rabbi Kohn’s discussion, to give a presentation about knowing your genetic history as it pertains to various forms of cancer. Denise Ibsen-Cole, Brandi Preston and JamieTully will share their personal stories of how cancer has affected their lives.
Rabbi Kohn’s visit to Temple Israel is sponsored by the Hermene Zweiback Center for Lifelong Jewish Learning.