A Hero in Our Midst – A Tribute to Raymond “The Barber” Cohen

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Mozelle Forman 

One of our community’s defining characteristics, for which we rightfully take pride, is hesed.  We donate generously to communal institutions and organizations – synagogues, yeshivot, and programs that help our fellow Jews in need – and we deeply care for one another, giving our time and resources whenever our assistance is needed.   

There are and have been many living examples of hesed in our community, but one of the most unique and colorful bastions of kindness was Raymond Cohen, a”h, fondly known to us as “Raymond the Barber.” He lived with a deep, profound commitment to his fellow Jew, and with extraordinary – even heroic – altruism.  

Emulating Moshe Rabbenu 

The Torah defines a hero as one who accepts responsibility for his people and looks out for them, even at great personal cost. Raymond’s dear friend Saul Ralph Tawil describes Raymond as someone who emulated Moshe Rabbenu. Moshe grew up in the safety and comfort of Pharaoh’s palace, but nevertheless “went out to his brothers” (“vayetze el ehav” – Shemot 2:11), making a point of seeing and concerning himself with the plight of his fellow Jews. Upon witnessing an Egyptian taskmaster violently beating a fellow Jew, Moshe promptly killed the taskmaster to rescue the helpless slave, exhibiting great compassion for his fellow Jew, despite putting himself at great risk. Raymond, in his humility, would have outright rejected this comparison, but he truly lived his life the way Moshe Rabbenu did – personally feeling the pain of every Jew, and committing himself to do everything he could to alleviate the pain.   

In England, where he was born and raised, Raymond was a member of a motorcycle group called the “Maccabees” that worked to protect Jews from neo-Nazis in the streets of Brighton, exposing himself to physical danger in the process. After emigrating to the U.S., he worked with the Jewish Defense League protecting vulnerable and elderly Jews from anti-Semitic attacks. 

“At night,” recalls his son, Marc, “he would go into neighborhoods that people wouldn’t go into even during the day to ‘remind’ those who harassed the elderly that there would be consequences.” 

Being a hero also means refusing to yield to even seemingly insurmountable obstacles. King David, while still a young man, stood before the massive giant, Golyat, with just his slingshot and his conviction that, in his words, “I come to you with the Name of the Lord of Hosts, the Gd of the armies of Israel” (Shmuel I17:45). Despite the grave danger and seemingly impossible odds, David stepped up to protect the nation in the name of Hashem. He did not cower or even hesitate; he saw a job that needed to be done, and dove right in. Much the same could be said about Raymond Cohen. There never was a “Golyat” that Raymond Cohen could not defeat. As his children attest, he never took “no” for an answer. No matter how difficult the challenge, he found a way to overcome it; no matter how tightly shut the door was; he found a way to open it. 

His son, David, jokingly remarked that Raymond’s refined British accent – which Rabbi David Ozeri said “could make a reading of the phone book sound interesting” – may have “opened the doors” that he somehow managed to open.  The truth, however, is that “his charm and passion for doing the right thing for others carried him through to his goal.”   

Sacrificing a Career for the Purity of the Family 

At the age of 21, after having been trained as a hairstylist since the age of 12, Raymond left London and headed to New York to find his American dream. After a “chance encounter” with his fellow celebrity hairdresser, and an old friend from London, Paul Mitchell, he was recruited to work with him at the Henri Bendel salon located in the iconic department store described as “that most elegant, nose-in-the-air store on 5th Avenue in Manhattan.” Rising to the top of his field, he took on a partner and started his own business, eventually opening up the largest salon in the country on Madison Avenue, where the price of a haircut was three digits already in the 1970s.  

His love and respect for rabbis brought him to build very close bonds with many leading Torah scholars, including the Belzer Rebbe, and Rabbi Yaakov Hillel – who called Raymond “the gadol hador [giant of the generation] of hesed.”  Hacham David Yosef lovingly recalls the time he came to Raymond’s salon 40 years ago. Raymond stopped what he was doing and spent an hour going into every Syrian store on 5th Avenue to raise money for the Hacham’s Kollel. He raised an enormous amount in a single hour. 

Raymond was especially close with Hacham David’s father, Hacham Ovadia, zt”l, and served as  his personal protocol and security attaché who escorted him to the White House, where the rabbi gave President Ronald Reagan a blessing in 1983. He even trimmed Hacham Ovadia’s hair and beard – twice! 

The relationships he forged with rabbis, and the great esteem he felt toward them, led Raymond to a drastic decision that would fundamentally change his and his family’s life.  

“The salon was not a wholesome place for his children to be,” explains his wife, Rachelle. 

Raymond credited Rabbi Isaac Dwek with convincing him that he needed to leave the hairstyling industry if he wanted his children to follow the path of Torah commitment. Remarkably, Raymond did just that, without a second thought, walking away from a very lucrative career for the sake of maintaining his family’s purity and wholesomeness.   

“My dad did everything he could to provide for the family,” Marc says, “working long hours and traveling across the country to promote his beauty products, hosting sales episodes on QVC, and even buying close-outs and selling them at the flea market. He went showroom to showroom selling men’s suits to community members, and, finally, worked in the wholesale apparel business, breaking every account that couldn’t be broken. He was a master salesman who knew how to cultivate relationships. There was no pride holding him back when it came to supporting his family.” 

The Barber’s Special Mitzvah 

But leaving the hair salon business turned out not to be “Raymond the Barber’s” last encounter with his scissors.   

“My father personified the idea that anything mundane can be elevated,” David says.  “So when he walked away from his business, he used his Gd-given talent – Sotheby’s had his hands insured for $1 million, 40 years ago – for the mitzvah of taking people out of their 30 days of mourning by giving them a Madison Ave.-haircut and a shave.  And like everything else he did, my father initiated the mitzvah unsolicited.  

Adam adds, “Whenever he saw a notice that someone was sitting shivah, he tracked the mourners down. If someone was saying kaddish in shul, he would approach them and offer to cut their hair.”   

Rachelle and their daughter, Renee Schweky, tell that 90 percent of the haircuts were done in their home. They would lay down a piece of plastic on the carpet, and the haircut would take place in the living room by the front door.   

“I have clear memories of random people coming to the house,” Renee shares. “I would ask my mom, ‘Who is that,’ and most of the time, we didn’t know. And it didn’t matter to my Dad who they were, rich or poor, or who their family was – he treated each one just the same, with respect and care.”   

Community legend Mike “the Mitzvah Man” Cohen says, “Bringing people out of mourning was Raymond’s  mitzvah. It’s known that he’s done thousands – he selflessly owned this mitzvah.” 

Caring for the Elderly 

But Raymond’s proudest achievement, one which was borne out of his love and compassion for his family – and particularly for his mother, Sophie, a”h, – was helping our community’s elderly live with dignity and happiness.   

According to his family, Raymond did not initially “believe” in nursing homes, feeling that family members should take in their elderly relatives and care for them at home. This is exactly what he and his righteous wife, Rachelle, did, caring for his widowed mom in their home for 26 years, during which time she lived as an integral member of the household. The family did not find it at all strange, or burdensome, to have her living in the home; to the contrary, they saw it as a natural part of their family life. Raymond’s daughter, Renee, recalls, “It was my pleasure to take care of my grandma Sophie, to help her get dressed and put on her make-up and jewelry.”   

But as Sophie aged and became ill with dementia, it was no longer feasible for her to live with the family. With trepidation and a heavy heart, Mr. Cohen began researching nursing homes.   

He had reservations and concerns about most of the homes he visited, and so with the safety of his mother at stake, he continued his search. Finally, he discovered the Sephardic Home for the Aged in Brooklyn, which was founded by the Turkish and Greek community that was once centered in Brooklyn, but then migrated to Cedarhurst.   

“When I met with Raymond,” recalls Michael New, Executive Director of the Sephardic Home, “he told me the only way he would admit his mom to the Home was if she could go home to his family every Shabbat. Although it was against our policy, we agreed, and Raymond or his daughter-in-law, Mazie, would faithfully pick up Sophie on Fridays and bring her back after Shabbat. As time went by, Sophie thrived at the Home in our specialized Alzheimer’s program.”    

Raymond became an advocate and promoter of the Sephardic Home to the entire Syrian community. He initially got involved to help make improvements to the Home, and then officially joined the Board as the first member from the Syrian community. He quickly became one of the most active and popular Board members, eventually being named Vice President of the Board. He helped many families admit their loved ones into the Home, getting them the best rooms and the highest standards of care.  

In 2015, The Sephardic Home was sold, and the money was used to launch the Sephardic Foundation for the Aged. Raymond remained on the Board, and, with the help of his fellow board members, directed millions to other non-profit nursing homes, rehab centers and Sephardic community seniors programs to ensure that elderly community members would receive the very best possible care.  

An “Unsung Hero” 

As grateful as Raymond was for the collaboration with the Sephardic Home, says community member Michael Haddad, he fervently believed that the community needed a nursing home of its own, within walking distance of residents’ family members.   

“Raymond is truly one of the unsung heroes of our community,” Michael says. “He had a deep reverence for the elderly, was concerned that our community elders were scattered throughout the nursing home system, and dreamed of building a home with our culture and values, for the community, and within the community.”   

In 2016, Raymond approached Mr. Haddad to launch the project. Together, they worked tirelessly and selflessly to build the foundation and framework for a community nursing home.   

“Raymond lit me up with the need for our own community nursing home, and I will continue doing everything I can to make his dream come true,” Mr. Haddad says. “My only regret is that he wasn’t able to see it completed in his lifetime. But I know he is praying for its successful completion.”  

Extraordinary Altruism 

Psychologists have coined a term for people like Raymond Cohen – “extraordinary altruist.” The criteria for this distinction are relatively straightforward: 1) perform a generous act for someone unrelated or unknown to you; 2) the action entails a personal risk or cost to you; 3) the act isn’t something you are required to do. And – you don’t think of yourself as anything but ordinary when performing such acts. This was Raymond Cohen, every single day of his life.   

Once, he heard about someone struggling to make his daughter’s wedding, and he singlehandedly raised $12,000 in one afternoon, delivering it to the person that evening so he would not go to sleep worried about paying for the wedding. Raymond partnered with Rabbi Shmuel Choueka in forming the SY Marriage Fund, where Raymond solicited funds and Rabbi Choueka dispersed them, helping hundreds of young couples to get married with dignity.    

Raymond saw this work not as volunteerism, but rather as an obligation, often stating, “It behooves us to help those who are less fortunate than us.”    

“Raymond was a man of tremendous nobility, refinement, and wisdom, who embodied all the good qualities of everything we try to be when we help those in need,” says Rabbi Binyamin Sanders of the Chesed 24/7 organization. “He was so obviously head-and-shoulders above anyone else I ever met, and a role model to all of us in the helping field.” 

“I Have Diamonds” 

At Raymond’s 75th birthday celebration, his family gathered to honor him, and he repeated over and over, “I am a very fortunate guy. Some people strive for monetary success, and some people strive for other types of success. In England, a person usually has one child, a cat, and a dog. And that is called “success.” But look at what I have! I have diamonds. I look at my beautiful family and am blessed that they have succeeded and exceeded me. The fact is that all of my children and grandchildren are moral citizens who give back to Hashem and our community. And this is because their mom was there to raise them correctly. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be here today.”   

Raymond’s son, Rabbi Adam Cohen, adds, “Gd bless my mother – she built on the foundations that my dad created. He would never have been able to do all that he did without her by his side.” 

There are those who donate to worthy charitable causes, and there are those who create the entity that will distribute the funds. There are those who honor and care for their parents, and there are those who overhaul an institution to make it a better place for all our parents. There are those who will gladly lend a hand when a problem is brought to their attention, and there are those with the exceptional ability to sense when one is in need and offer to help. There are those with talents who use them for their own purposes, and there are those who turn their talents into mitzvot. There are those who generously give of their time and money to support worthy causes, and there are those who encourage others donate. There are parents whose children wonder what they’re busy with when they perform hesed, and there are parents who make hesed an integral part of family life.   

Raymond Cohen was, in all cases, the latter. He arrived in our community knowing no one, and left a legacy affecting everyone. 

Our community has suffered the loss of a pioneer – a man who made it his business to improve the lives of his fellow Jews. He was a man who, as Rabbi Ozeri describes, had a “passion to help other people, and we will never really know how many people he helped.” 

Our community needs more people like Raymond Cohen, people who engage in lifelong heroism, who are not just compassionate and caring, but have a knack for being able to see things from the perspective of others.    

Each one of us has the potential for outstanding altruism. Our tradition teaches that “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh lazeh – All Israel are responsible for one another.” We are all connected. We have the capacity to put ourselves in our fellow’s shoes, to feel each other’s pain, to understand each other’s needs, to empathize with one another – and this experience is what gives rise to altruism, to a powerful impulse to alleviate other people’s suffering. This is the level we should all be striving for. As Raymond would say: “It behooves us…” 

If you have a story to share of Raymond, please share it with the family at RaymondtheBarber18@gmail.com for inclusion in a forthcoming book about his extraordinary life.