Or Cohen: Bringing a little of Israel to her new home

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Or Cohen came to Rhode Island in August to serve as the Israeli emissary (shlichah) to the Rhode Island Jewish community through summer 2021.

As a teen, the 28-year-old Israeli was a champion swimmer, specializing in the butterfly stroke. Rather than try out for the Olympics, she joined the navy and participated in combat operations as the executive officer of a missile ship. Cohen was the first female commander of an Israeli patrol boat. Later, she was the commander of academics in Israel’s naval academy. She has a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Haifa.

Following her release from the Israel Defense Forces with the rank of lieutenant commander, Cohen traveled across the globe: Kyrgyzstan, Vietnam, the Philippines and the U.S., where she spent time in Westchester County, New York, sharing a little bit about life in Israel.

It’s common in Israel to take a gap year and travel after army service, Cohen said.

In Israel this past year, she volunteered in a children’s hospital, taught swimming and coached a teen water polo team.

Cohen recently sat down with Jewish Rhode Island to answer a few questions and introduce herself to the Jewish community of Rhode Island. The interview has been slightly edited for clarity.

Tell us a little about your family.

My father is a farmer in a moshav [Nitzanei Oz, near Netanya]. My grandfather built the moshav [a cooperative farming community]. We have sheep and chickens. My mother was an accountant. She died three years ago from cancer. I have three little sisters. One is 24, and was an officer in the Iron Dome unit. She has studied cooking and baking. One is 19, and in a search-and-rescue combat unit in the IDF. My youngest sister is 13, and in middle school.

I try to talk to them every day by video chat, to see and hear them. We help and support each other. We are very close.

Why did you decide to become a shlichah?

I really enjoy working with people. I thought I’d be a teacher long term … a principal. Then I went to travel, and I took part in the program in Westchester [County], where I shared my experiences. It called me back.

What has been your experience in the U.S. so far? How do you like Providence?

Here, there’s a warm welcome all the time. In Israel, you don’t feel the same sense of community outside of the moshav. It’s unique to be in a community. Here, it’s strong. I feel that way at every temple. I feel that all the time. I felt that way in Westchester. I really like it. It’s felt like a family.

What has surprised you?

Holidays are very different. Here, you feel more community. Dinner is bigger. In Israel, it’s more of a family time. It’s more private.

Three recommendations of places to visit in Israel?

These would be for returning travelers. First would be my home! Visit a moshav or a kibbutz. Second would be Rosh HaNikra. It’s on the sea and there are beautiful sunsets every day. This is where I patrolled in the navy. Third, one of our springs in Israel. There are a lot of springs. For example, Ein Kanaf has beautiful views of the Kinneret and Galilee.

Favorite food?

I love moufleta [a type of crepe]. My family is Moroccan. You can’t cook only moufleta; it has to be a party. And I really love pancakes.

What do you hope people will learn from you as a shlichah?

Israel is home. Home is not only the house. It’s the family. I want people to know the warmth, how it feels to be in Israel. I want to let you feel that Israel is your home. Part of my job is to go back to Israel and share my experiences, just as I share here. I will take back what I learn here.

What should our community know about you?

I love playing with the kids. I enjoy feeling like I’m 8 years old and running with the kids. When I first got here, I was so happy to play soccer, and in the second game, I broke my toe!  

FRAN OSTENDORF (fostendorf@jewishallianceri.org) is the editor of Jewish Rhode Island.