Hayim Cohen: Bright Light

We first heard about Hayim when his 16-year-old adopted son, Avshalom, wrote to tell us his father is “the most amazing person on this planet,” and that he considers Hayim to be his hero. In his early 20s, a single Hasidic Jew, Hayim adopted Avshalom and his brother Avichai. The family has since grown to include four more children, all flourishing in faith, culture, and a lifestyle that celebrates creating good deeds for a brighter future.

By Sara G. Stephens, HFM Editor-in-Chief

HFM: How did it make you feel to hear about this letter and to later read what your son had written?

HC: I felt truly blessed, and for a moment I was left speechless–the type of speechless where a thousand thoughts are running through your mind. To hear about it was one thing, but to read the letter was a whole other experience. One that I would describe as humbling. It most definitely brought this father to tears. Family is forever, and so are moments in time. This moment will be cherished forever.

HFM: You were a young, single man when you adopted Avshalom and Avichai. What prompted you to take such a great leap at such an early stage in your own life?

HC: From an early age, I knew I wanted to give back through helping kids. I was in my early 20s when I became a volunteer for centers for children and families in west Texas. From there, I was exposed to the need for foster as well as adoptive parents. I remember the day so clearly when I received a phone call about two Jewish children who had been placed in foster care. The children where Avshalom and his brother Avichai. I called CPS [Child Protective Services] the same day to offer my help. I sent Jewish books and kosher food to the boys. As time passed, the case worker called me to ask me if I would become licensed to foster the boys. With no hesitation, I agreed. Little did I know it was the beginning to an amazing journey. Yes, it was most definitely a great leap. Even now that I look back, it’s a leap I would take over and over. There were so many reasons to say “no.” The reality is, there where more reasons to say, “yes.” I believe with all my heart that opportunities to do good are placed in front of us for a reason.

HFM: You have since adopted five more children, all with varying exposures to the Jewish culture.

HC: Yes. Avshalom, 16; Avichai, 14; Yehuda, 13; Shmariyahu, 12; Simcha, 5; and Yissachar, 3. All six children speak Hebrew, and the four older boys read Hebrew, as well. Avshalom, Avichai, and Yehuda have all celebrated their bar mitzvahs, and they enjoy learning Torah daily.

HFM: In his letter to HFM, Avshalom wrote, “I remember being in foster care-the only Jewish kid in the house. I thought it was the end to my culture. “ How important is the consideration of faith and culture when considering adoption–both for the child and for the adoptive parent?

HC: In Avshalom’s case, it was extremely important. Being Jewish in a non-Jewish home had a profound effect on him–one he still remembers to this day. On the other hand, Yehuda, who was not religious, had no preference. Faith is not necessarily the hardest obstacle to work with. Culture is, as it may [entail] a language, as well as customs, traditions, even foods that can and can’t be eaten. If I were to adopt a non-Jewish child, I must respect his or her ways. Perhaps they enjoy Christian music or going to church. For me, this is not an issue, as I believe everyone deserves to be who they are, no matter what. As an adoptive parent, it is extremely important to consider this matter very carefully, as it is a decision that affects you and the child.

HFM: How have your kids acclimated to a Chasidic lifestyle?

HC: The kids have acclimated very well in fact, sometimes they are more Chassidic than I am. They always remind me to find the kosher symbol on a product to make sure it’s kosher. In the mornings, I might be a little tired, and they remind me it’s time to pray. But they have made many adjustments. We are Chabad Chassidim. Our Rebbe is “Menachem Mendel Schneerson.” Our customs are unique and very important to us. We are a kosher home, we don’t have a television, and we dress according to Jewish law. When we cut our hair, we don’t cut the sides–this is called payot. We also keep the Sabbath holy, which means we abstain from any work. This can be difficult for someone who is not used to it, as one cannot touch any electronic, or even a pencil. The kids love the Sabbath, as it is a time when we as a family sit at the formal table in our best suits and use the best china. We celebrate by singing and chanting prayers, telling stories, and enjoying a buffet of food. I often tell people we have a holiday to prepare for every week the Sabbath!

HFM: What does a family of 7 do for fun and relaxation in Houston?

HC: With the Cohens, there is never a dull moment. We love Houston. There is always something amazing to do. On Mondays, we enjoy Monday Night Madness at Main Event. On Thursdays, the museum district is our best friend. And on Sundays, we like to discover downtown by going to Discovery Green. Of course, there is always Kemah boardwalk for those adventuress days. One thing’s for sure, in Houston there is something for everyone. Family-friendly, indeed.

HFM: Do you have plans to grow your family any further?

HC: Yes, yes, and yes! Or should I say, we as a family have recently inquired on a sibling group of three. So we may soon be a family of 10! We won’t know for sure, as there is a process of consideration from the department. However, we are hopeful.

HFM: What lessons have you learned about foster parenting and adoption?

HC: Kids in foster care often have the stigma of being broken. This is not true. Yehuda and Shmariyahu lived in at least five different homes, as well as group homes, and even a residential treatment facility, spending five years or more in foster care, with no hope to be adopted. They were likely to age out of the system. Both were academically failing and had no interest in anything. When I received their profiles, at first sight, they were terrifying. Today these kids are excelling in multiple ways. All the boys have straight A’s and perfect attendance. They all play an instrument and speak and read multiple languages. It’s truly amazing how kids want to do the right thing when they’re in the right environment.

HFM: What has most surprised you about being a parent?

HC: Recently I found out that I am my son’s hero. I spent hours reading the email over and over. I am truly touched. As a single father, I often pray that I will be a positive role model to my kids. Reading the email Avshalom sent you reminded me of a quote I once heard: “No, I didn’t give you the gift of life. Life gave me the gift of you.” Every day, I’m reminded of the six precious gifts that life gave me. As a father, I cherish every moment with my kiddos, and I must humble myself and remember that they cherish every moment with me. I pray that every father, whether single, married, or adoptive, can see that he is a hero to his kids–in the good times and the bad.

HFM: What advice can you pass on from your own parenting experience?

HC: Kids are truly a blessing. They are our future. We must enrich them with goodness and kindness. We fathers and mothers are the light to our children, and they are the light to our future.

Tell Me More!

The Cohen kids recently started a Youtube Channel (Our Unique Family), focused on family tradition and everyday life. Visit the channel here: https://youtu.be/X7S8BaktgtQ