Saturday, November 3, 2018



Port Jervis grad, now president of Pittsburgh hospital, responds to synagogue massacre

Cohen: ",,, I have had the privilege of giving voice and trying to make sense ..."

PORT JERVIS – The world can at times seem small, as it did for many in Port Jervis and globally who gathered in prayer following Pittsburgh’s tragic shooting last Saturday.  As shots rang out claiming the lives of 11 innocent worshippers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA, others, including in Port Jervis, came together throughout the weekend in sympathy, support, and prayer.  

Many were unaware as they bowed their heads in prayer in Port Jervis that one of their own, Dr. Jeffrey Cohen, president of Allegheny General Hospital (AGH) in Pittsburgh, was handling media inquiries from around the world about hospital staff’s instinctive response to the attack and attacker.  

Cohen, a Class of 1972 Port Jervis High School graduate, had religious instruction at Temple Beth-El in Port Jervis. 

Allegheny General Hospital received both the shooter and many of the victims following Saturday morning’s attack and responded to all equally, skillfully, and without judgment as they arrived.

Cohen has told media from around the world that while he finds irony in the fact that he and other doctors who treated the shooter after the attack were Jewish and may have had conflicting emotions, they fulfilled their mission to “take care of sick people without questioning who they are.”

Reached in Pittsburgh, Cohen reflected for his hometown on the tragedy and his own instinctive reaction and actions.

Cohen said he couldn’t help but wonder how a person gets to the point of this attack and has reflected since then on this and other past tragic attacks.

“I was touched by seeing photos of the synagogue in Port Jervis as I was Bar Mitzvahed there in 1967,” Cohen said in viewing photos of the local prayer gatherings.  “This has been a difficult time for all of us and I have had the privilege of giving voice and trying to make sense of what happened.  I hear echoes from Sr. Mary Jeanne from St. Francis Hospital and my dad (the late Jerome Cohen).  I send my regards to all.”

Cohen, whose Pittsburgh home of the past 25 years is catty-corner to the Tree of Life synagogue, said he was at home working in his study with his daughter when they first heard sounds of the attack on Saturday morning.  As he became of aware of what was happening, he stood in his driveway with an EMS supervisor and watched police with guns and assault rifles move toward the temple.  One yelled to him to get back inside as there was an active shooter.

“If I could have been of help to someone I thought it was important to do so.  Truth was there wasn’t a lot for me to do.  My phone was blowing up from others checking on us who know where we live. I tried to answer as many as I could,” he later recalled.

Cohen learned that two local hospitals were receiving injured police, and the shooter and victims were being taken to his hospital.  He was in constant touch with staff at his hospital and others as the tragedy evolved and recalled the somber shaken faces of SWAT team members as the situation on scene stabilized.

“I was proud of the AGH team who organized, assembled and treated the shooter.  They were texting me that they were there or coming to help.  No one asked questions of his politics, race, background but merely took care of him. One of the nurses who did so is a congregant of the Tree and both he and I know some of the people executed.”

Later, Cohen said he pondered such things as the first chapter of the Bible and the perspective he sees as the light and dark of life. 

“Good and evil, order and chaos, life and death – the ying and yang of existence.  I saw it on Saturday – all of it, evil up front and bravery to counter balance it.  I saw pain inflicted on a population of Jews who were celebrating a bar mitzvah and/or baby’s naming, and I saw healthcare workers reassembling people’s physical being after the purposeful action of someone to take their lives.  I saw a synagogue turned into a killing zone and people around the universe reaching out to let us know they were praying of for us. We are safe now but we are not okay.  We’re better than this.  It’s time for us to forgive and get on with the work of light. I am fortunate to have a purpose in protecting that light.”

Nora Heilig Bronson Perry, a congregant of Temple Beth-El, was among two dozen members and friends who gathered at the Port Jervis temple on Saturday.  She said individuals came together to share grief, thoughts, prayer, and the hometown support Cohen and others are grateful for.  

 “Since we are such a small group, things like this tend to send a shock wave through all of us,” said Lois Harford, who also attended on Saturday.

On Sunday morning, members of the Grace Fellowship Lutheran Church Youth Group on Sullivan Avenue followed their own church worship service with a trip to Port Jervis’ East Main Street temple.  They carried a candle for each of the 11 victims killed in Pittsburgh, and for the Jewish faith in general.

“We pray regularly in different areas of the city – the schools, police department, hospital, fire department.  We had a prayer walk planned for last weekend since September, and in light of the message we heard from our guest speaker (Mitch Glasser of Chosen People Ministry) on Sunday morning, and because of what had happened in Pittsburgh the day before, we changed our plans and wanted to pray at the temple,” said Steve Sumnick, youth pastor at Grace Fellowship Church.  “We wanted to show love and gratitude for the Jewish people who brought forth our messiah and prayer for the Jewish community in Port Jervis.”

Cohen, whose home, temple, and daily work location is just blocks from Fred Rogers’ (Mister Rogers Neighborhood) real home neighborhood, said he is grateful for such kindness in his hometown and around the globe, and for the good work his colleagues and others do each day. 

“Thank you for your concern and well wishes,” Cohen said.   “We will get through this. Be kind to each other.”  In the words of someone who lived around the corner from Tree, “Won’t you be my neighbor?” 


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