Descendants of Harry Cohen know the family's patriarch hailed from Lithuania and entered the United States via Canada. They also know that he settled in Philadelphia in 1908, before moving two years later to Neshaminy in nearby Bucks County. Once there, the tailor-cum-farmer set up a small congregation, first davening in his home and then building a structure.
Information about Cohen and his travels – what his life was like before he got to America, for instance – seems to stop there. But ask family members what he carried on his transatlantic journey and they all know the answer: a Torah.
That same scroll – albeit with a different cover and breast plate – is still housed at Congregation Tiferes B'nai Israel in Warrington, more than 80 years after Harry Cohen purchased the land where the synagogue still stands.
In December, a great-great-grandson of Cohen – Jarrod Cohen – became a Bar Mitzvah at the Reconstructionist synagogue. Surrounded by his parents and all four grandparents, he read from the Torah that his ancestor, who died in 1943, cherished so deeply.
"I think he would have wanted me to read from it," said Cohen, a seventh-grader at Pennbrook Middle School in North Wales. "It was a huge honor for me and nice to have the opportunity to do that, since so many people don't have it."
An Added Rite of Passage
According to his father, Louis Cohen,who also happens to be president of the synagogue, Jarrod is the seventh fifth-generation Cohen to become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah at the synagogue, which has been formally affiliated with the Reconstructionist movement for six years. (According to Ken Cohen, Louis's cousin, the synagogue was always unaffiliated, but considered itself "traditional." The synagogue affiliated with the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation when Rabbi Jon Cutler became its religious leader in 1999.)
All told, more than 35 family members have had this rite of passage performed at the synagogue and still live in the area, though not all of them belong to Tiferes B'nai Israel.
"I've never heard of anyone in the United States having the ability to do this," said Cutler, referring to the Cohens' unique position.
The rabbi added that "some synagogues have scrolls that have survived the Holocaust, but to have one that old – brought over by a family member? It's fairly rare."
Cutler said that due to its fragility, the Torah is not used on a weekly basis – the shul owns four other scrolls – but instead is saved for Maftir services on holidays.
Coincidentally, the Dec. 17 Bar Mitzvah was just one day before the 81st anniversary of Neshaminy officially chartering the synagogue.
Perhaps even more symbolic, the Torah portion Cohen read that Saturday morning, Vayishlach, tells the story of how Jacob returned to his roots in Canaan following a 20-year sojourn.
Cohen said he hopes to maintain his family's tradition of holding its Bar and Bat Mitzvahs at Tiferes B'nai Israel.
Maybe even one day, he went on, he'd like to be board president, just like his father.
But when it comes to ensuring that family simchas, such as his own wedding, are held at the Bucks County congregation, he's a bit more certain.
Said the 13-year-old: "That would be a definite!"