Stamford spiritual leader wonders “What Will They Say About You When You Are Gone?”
By Alex Putterman
STAMFORD — Rabbi Daniel Cohen has a lot of ideas and a great desire to share them. Cohen, 45, is currently spiritual leader of Stamford’s Congregation Agudath Shalom. A rabbi for 20 years, he received his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. He began his career as an assistant rabbi in West Orange, N.J., then stepped up to his first pulpit at West Hartford’s Young Israel of West Hartford, before moving to a larger synagogue in Denver. In 2005, he returned to Connecticut to take over at Agudath Shalom, Connecticut’s largest Orthodox synagogue.
Cohen frequently contributes to a Huffington Post blog and serves as a national officer of the Rabbinical Council of America, a regional board member of the Anti-Defamation League, a member of American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) National Council and is the past chairman of the Vaad of Fairfield County and the Stamford Rabbinical Council.
Now, the rabbi is preparing to publish his first book, What Will They Say About You When You Are Gone? Seven Principles for Reverse Engineering Your Life. The book discusses tactics for living an ideal life, the type that would make you smile reading your own obituary.
In anticipation of the book’s release, Cohen will deliver a seminar at the Jewish Ledger on Thursday, July 25 at noon on the topic of “Living Inspired,” one of the principles outlined in his upcoming book.
In advance of this seminar, Cohen spoke with the Ledger about the inspiration for his book and how its principles have affected his own life.
Q: Your book is about “reverse engineering” your life. What exactly does that mean?
A: I’ll give you the following scenario: You go to a funeral, and as you walk out of the funeral you have a moment where you say to yourself, “I hope they think about me the way they felt about that person.” And it’s a moment, regardless of faith, where you feel, “How can I do that with my life, my priorities, my family?” And you ask that question, “What will they think about me when I’m gone? And usually that awakening lasts about 10 minutes. And then you take a phone call, you go back to work. And then the stirring just goes away. So I’m writing a book titled What Will They Say About You when You’re Gone, where you begin the book by writing your own obituary. And then I take you on a journey: seven principles for reverse engineering your life so you lead the life now that you want to be remembered for.
Q: Did you have a particularly powerful funeral experience that inspired that idea for a book?
A: There are a few factors. Number one, as a rabbi, I’ve done hundreds of funerals. It’s always a challenge to help family members remember what’s significant about somebody’s life. And I find it very inspiring. Many times I find it disappointing when I sit with a family and try to identify, after 50, 60 years of being with a parent, what truly is memorable and what truly lasts. So, I’ve been in that experience a lot of being with people at the end of life, of having conversations with them.
Also, in my personal life I’ve always felt a strong sense of urgency to live a meaningful life. My mother passed away from an aneurism, suddenly, when she was 44-years-old. So, I lost my mom at a young age and always felt a sense of the fragility of life. Both she and my father always gave me this broad sense of purpose, of why I’m here, of what I’m able to accomplish. And that’s me also. It’s been a part of me. I guess all these things coming together, has aroused in me a desire to write about this idea.
Q: What do you think qualifies you to broach such a profound and broad topic?
A: There are a lot of people that have wisdom. It’s important to learn from everybody. I find, myself, that I learn from a lot of people. All I consider myself in this book is a conduit. I don’t claim to have all the wisdom in the world, but I do believe that I have a unique opportunity because I engage in conversations with people at moments when rarely do people have the opportunity. And people will open up to me. Given that life experience, I was a rabbi at a very young age, trying to council people in my mid-20s who were 75-years-old, who had a lot more life experience than I do. I would share with them, “I’m just passing along some wisdom.” Wisdom of thousands of years. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I do believe that over time I’ve culled a lot of insights that I hope to share with people. They’re not necessarily only my own by any means, but I’m just trying to be that repository and that conduit of wisdom.
Q: Do you think there’s a guideline, a proper way to go through life, or is that something for each person to determine on their own?
A: I think it’s a combination of the two. I think that life fundamentally has purpose and meaning. I don’t think people are here in this world by accident. I think God gave each person a neshema, a soul. Jew or non-Jew, everybody wants some sort of meaning in life. Purpose, love, impact. That’s something that is universal for everybody. I believe that there are certain principles – for Jewish people they may be more specifically rooted in Torah – but within the broader context of humanity they’re rooted within certain soulful ideas and wisdom. I do think there are principles that should guide any human being to try to live by.
One of the principles in the book is called “courageous choices.” Where you look back at a person’s life, and you can identify four or five key moments in which you made a decision not because of expedience, but because you knew it was the right thing to. Everybody has sometimes in their heart divided attention. You might do something because it feels good or you might do something because it is good. In my book, what I try to do in terms of this principle is help people identify those moments, those choices, and help with stories and strategies. I try to give them the moral fortitude to make those courageous choices. I’m not going to micro-manage, but I’m there to give them the tools to make choices that they’ll feel proud of 50 years down the road.
Q: How does this subject intersect with religion in general and with Judaism in particular?
A: I would say that in religion in general they’re trying to help us aspire to listen to our higher angels, to try to motivate us to live on a higher frequency; and to lead more soulful lives, not lives that are based on momentary pleasure and based on self-centeredness but rather on other-centeredness. That’s pretty much what every faith is about. And that’s what I’m trying to convey with this book.
I think Judaism in particular has a lot of wonderful ideas. Take Sabbath, the Shabbat, for example. You don’t have to be Jewish per se to try to incorporate an oasis of time into your life. One of the first principles in the book is called “Seize Meditative Moments.” If we’re leading lives where we’re basically pushed around like a pinball from here to there, there’s absolutely no time to think. You can look at a day, a week, and say “where did it all go?” and there’s no time for reflection, and you’re going to lead unfortunately a very empty life. So, whether you’re Jewish or not you have to create mechanisms to create a Sabbath, to create those meditative moments, whether it’s daily or it’s weekly, to turn off the outside world and to turn on your inner world.
Q: Do you find that people generally have a sense of how they want to be remembered, or is determining that part of the reverse engineering?
A: The first step in reverse engineering is creating a space for them and an opportunity and guidelines to answer that question. How do they want to be remembered? To put it out there as almost a post for them, talk about how you continue to keep that in mind.
The last principle in the book is called “Discover your Renewable Energy.” Which means that Judaism doesn’t believe in a retirement. It’s not “Well I’ve been through the book and now I’m good to go.” It takes a constant reengagement with those values, because there’s always something new you can contribute. One of the areas and groups I’m trying to work with are retired people. Somebody’s 70 years old, and they struggle with how do I gain meaning in my life that’s defined by my job. But the truth is, that’s not who you are, and now you can contribute something else. So I try to guide people in that way.
I had a conversation yesterday – you know the plane crash in San Francisco. Now for the guy who was sitting in the plane I read about in the New York Times who said “When I was on that plane, 99.9 percent I thought I was going to die. One percent I lived.” My point is, if you were on that plane, the next day I’m sure you hugged your child a little bit more and thought a little bit more about what’s important in life. You don’t have to be in that plane to go to that moment of a crisis. Everybody does it. You go to the doctor for a colonoscopy. You pray. You haven’t prayed in months, but that morning when you’re going to get the results back, boy are you praying that everything’s okay.
So, I’m trying to help people cultivate that sense of awakening, awareness and inspiration that every human being has at moments of their life.
Q: When you talk about writing your own obituary, that has a very morbid feel, but hearing you speak, it’s much more about life and optimizing your life.
A: The essence of the book is definitely about becoming more life-affirming, appreciating every moment. Ethics of Our Fathers says that if you want to lead a meaningful life, remember the day of your death. The truth is we all are people that are mortal. I don’t view this as a morbid thing. There’s nobody in life that doesn’t have the moment where they’ve confronted mortality in some way, where they get a wake-up call. James Joyce called it an epiphany. Those are moments in life, but they’re not always pleasant moments. I would call that moment a stirring of the soul. Now, harness that to lead a much more optimistic, life-affirming, relationship-enriched, eternal sort of life.
Another chapter in my book is called “Living Inspired.” The truth is, we have opportunities to connect with people hundreds of times a day. We have a choice. Martin Buber says there can either be “I-it” relationships or “I-thou” relationships. If I treat people just like obstacles for me to get to where I want to go, or like objects, I’m going to have a very empty life. But if I develop a strategy to have “I-thou” relationships when I meet people, when I talk to people – for example, when I get an email, I don’t just let it go; I take the moment to say “You know, maybe there’s someone there that needs a little help, someone I can connect with on a deeper level ” – then your life is going to be fantastic. You will live on such a higher plane. And the world would be a whole different place because we’re not just cruising, we’re living.
Q: How have these principles manifested themselves in your own life?
A: In a number of ways. I’m definitely much more sensitive to being in the moment with people. We live in tough economic times, so I get resumes. Somebody will tell me they’re out of a job. I could say to them, “That’s nice” or “That’s tough, I’m sorry, God willing it will be all right.” Or I could say to someone, “Send me your resume, I have a mailing list of people, I’ll try to pass that along.” No promises, but I’ll try through this conversation to say, “You know what, I’m here and you’re here for a reason. Let’s try to make this into a divine, eternal moment.”
There is a blog that I wrote a couple weeks ago on the Huffington Post called, “What it means to be a father.” I took a moment in JFK airport as I was sending my daughter off to Israel about 11 months ago, and that one moment of reflection, of watching a father give his daughter a blessing…when I was struggling in my mind with what to say to my daughter when she was going off to Jerusalem for 10 months, changed my life because in that moment I knew that I wanted to give the blessing to my daughter, which I did.
As a result of taking that one moment, which I never would have thought about years ago, I said, “I want to give my daughters blessing every Friday night.” But my challenge was that I wanted to be loyal to tradition, and my father’s tradition was only to do it the day before Yom Kippur. So I call my dad on the phone, and he’s in Jerusalem and I tell him I want to give my kids a blessing. And he said to me words that I’ll never forget. He said to me, “I feel bad that I never gave you a blessing every Friday night.” This is a father who’s 70-years-old and he’s admitting this to his son. He said, “If you have a moment every Friday night to look your daughter in the eye and to give her a hug and to give her a blessing, you should do it.” And I began giving my daughters blessing every Friday night.
Now here’s the rest of the story. I tell this in a sermon a few weeks later and I get an email from a congregant: “That was a great sermon, rabbi. But it’s not too late for your father to give you a blessing.” I’m 45-years-old, and I call my dad on the phone and say “This may sound odd, but this is what happened. Would you be willing to give me a long-distance blessing 6,000 miles over the phone every week?” He says, “Sure, I would love to.” And now every Friday, because of one moment at JFK, I’m getting a blessing from my father, and then hours later I’m giving blessings to my daughters. That’s how the book changed my life.
Q: You mentioned the Huffington Post blog. Do you have any other outlets for your thoughts besides your pulpit?
A: I’m building a website, which will be up in a couple of weeks: RabbiDanielCohen.com, which will be a lot of the things that I’m doing – not only the book but also more blogging on a regular basis, Facebook, Twitter. I also give seminars on some of the principles of the books. I do that at synagogues, churches. I do that at law firms, businesses. In the business environment I will really give seminars to try to encourage people and help people develop their sense of moral anchor. I work with some other groups in wealth management, planning your future, but also planning your future in terms of your legacy; working with advocacy groups such as AIPAC, developing the courage to advocate for something you believe in, within the context of bullying issues. How do you cultivate courage within your children?
I have also interviewed for the book what I call “soulful celebrities.” These are people who are well-known in their fields and have maintained a sense of rootedness in what they do. Within the world of politics I interviewed Senator Joseph Lieberman, of course, and Governor Dannel Molloy, film director/producer Ron Howard, and former Today Show host Ann Curry; and I’m interviewing Rudy Giuliani in a couple of weeks.
When I do a funeral now I’m much more sensitive to how to capture this moment in a way that we can all grow from it. At many funerals I’ll share with them what King Solomon said: “It’s better to go to a funeral than it is a wedding.”
What does King Solomon mean? Well, after a wedding you had a great time and the next morning you get up and you say to yourself, “My Gosh, I had a great time, but I ate too much.” But at a funeral it’s possible today that there’s something that you heard that could actually make your life better and could motivate you to help the world in a different way.
Q: What can we expect from your upcoming seminar at the Ledger?
A: Hopefully, some food for thought. First, obviously, I’ll give a little bit of a backdrop for the book and get people to think about this larger question of the impact and legacy. Then dig down in particular to one of the principles, like “Living Inspired.” How do you take these fleeting moments and turn them into enduring moments? I want to educate people, using sources both Jewish and non-Jewish, share stories of inspiration and then leave people with strategies so that when they actually leave the room they have the tools to live a more inspired and meaningful life.
Rabbi Daniel Cohen will lead a luncheon seminar at the Connecticut Jewish Ledger on Thursday, July 25 at noon. Reservations are required. For more information call (860) 231-2424 x3024.
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