Celebration for Birmingham chaplain couple

How the Cohens turned student care into an art form


Rabbi Fishel Cohen and his wife Esther

Rabbi Fishel Cohen and his wife Esther

A celebration dinner has been held to mark Birmingham chaplain Rabbi Fishel Cohen and his wife Esther's 25 years of service.

The couple moved to the city in August 1984, initially taking responsibility for the entire Midlands region, and have since attended to the religious, pastoral and welfare needs of thousands of students.

Over the years they have covered universities in Warwick, Wolverhampton, Derby, Coventry, Loughborough, Leicester and Nottingham.

On Sunday, more than 200 people attended the Midlands Region Chaplaincy Board dinner to celebrate the couple's work.

Neil Cooper, chairman of the chaplaincy board, said: "It's gratifying that so many people wanted to come. Apart from looking after the students they have roles within the wider Jewish community and are very active in all aspects of our communal life.

"Fishel has even been interviewing Muslim and Christian chaplains for them to work at other universities. He is unflappable.

"I'm always getting emails from them at 2am or 6am, they are so hard-working. On a normal Shabbat they will have maybe 30 students round for lunch without even thinking about it. "

For the couple themselves, offering students a home away from home is something to treasure.

Rabbi Cohen said: "Some relationships with students can be just a brief encounter and we do not know how significant it is for the person we meet, but with others we form a closer relationship and in some cases they have lasted for 23 years after they have left university."

The Cohens have witnessed many changes during their time in Britain's second city.

"Years ago the universities had mainly Christian chaplains and any interest in us as Jewish chaplains was very much on the periphery. Now we have become part of the fabric," said Rabbi Cohen.

"When we arrived we knew of about 50 Jewish students here. Now it's more like 1,000. What gives me pride is that the vast majority of students who come here have a great experience."

Mrs Cohen took up a greater role to work in partnership with her husband because she wanted "to be more than just the person providing the food".

Indeed, she has gone to great lengths to offer the best service possible.

She said: "There was a real need to provide proper support for students going through a difficult time. I wanted to offer more so I did a degree in counselling and now run my own volunteer counselling service for Jewish students. We've had students from all over the country come for help."

Former student Karen Wilfin said the couple had been inspirational: "Their home was always open, day and night, and you were always extremely welcome. Esther's wonderful cooking and baking kept us all going. They really are amazing chaplains and students couldn't ask for more."

Even after so many years of service, Rabbi Cohen has no intention of slowing down - earlier this month he was to be seen "bungee running" at a Lag b'Omer barbecue.

He said: "We have no plans to move on. This is just a question of marking the first 25 years."

Mrs Cohen agrees: "The students are our family. We have formed some very special relationships and we keep in touch with hundreds of students.

"This is only a beginning. We are used to only sleeping for four hours a night. We don't see this as a job, it's our way of life."

Last updated: 2:40pm, May 21 2010