By COLlive reporter
Rabbi Eliyahu Cohen, a brilliant Lubavitcher chossid who made a kiddush hashem as he seamlessly navigated a career in academia with his devotion to Torah and Chassidus, passed away on Monday, 5 Shevat 5781.
He was 79 and suffered from health complications following his infection of COVID-19.
He was born in Tunisia and immigrated to Montreal, Canada, in his youth. At the age of 16, he took notice of the notable Chabad chassidim in Montreal who survived the Second World War and built the Yeshiva Tomchei Tmimim Lubavitch – Rabbinical College of Canada.
R’ Elie, as he was later known in the community, began learning Chassidus and quickly grasped deep kabbalistic concepts along with learning Gemara and its many commentaries and halacha.
He did so while being enrolled in McGill University. When his professors noticed his frequent absence, they expelled him. R’ Elie happily reported the development to the Rebbe, noting that he can now devote all of his time to learning Torah. To his surprise, the Rebbe instructed him to return to college.
He ended up receiving his Ph.D. from McGill in 1967, the same year he also received his smicha rabbinical ordination from the Yeshiva which was headed by the great gaon and Montreal’s Chief Rabbi Pinchas Hirschprung OBM.
Looking for a livelihood, R’ Elie received 3 job offers and once again consulted with the Rebbe. The Rebbe instructed him to take the position at Concordia University, a public comprehensive research university located in the heart of downtown Montreal.
“You won’t find a better math teacher,” one student wrote about him in 2012. “Math teachers in general are notoriously bad, but this guy combines humor, passion, and mathematics seamlessly.” Another noted that “He expects a lot from students.”
R’ Elie served there as Associate Professor of Mathematics and Statistics with research interests in homological algebra and category theory. As a bearded chossid, his appearance was a rarity and an example of blending otherwise opposite worlds. It led to many meaningful interactions and conversations with students over the years.
R’ Elie would daven Shachris at the shul of the “Yeshiva” and then take the Montreal Metro, the underground rapid transit system, to work. When a friend once offered him a catch a ride with him, he politely declined as his train ride downtown was carefully calculated for saying Tehillim and learning.
It was told that he once arrived at shul at 6:00 AM where a night-long Chassidic farbrengen was just wrapping up with the renowned lecturer Rabbi Manis Friedman. “Come dance with us,” Rabbi Friedman asked. R’ Elie, as a loyal soldier, declined. “That’s not what the Rebbe would want from me,” he said. “I need to daven now and go to work. I need to do my Shlichus.”
The Canadian-born Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Aharonov, Chairman of Agudas Chassidei Chabad and Tzach in Israel, nicknamed R’ Elie as “the Rebbe’s professor.” Indeed, his office in the J.W. McConnell Building of the university was filled with volumes of Gemara which he made use of at every free moment.
But for all of his expertise in mathematics, his children don’t remember him ever discussing work at home or bringing home any work-related books or papers. “In the day he was in Concordia, in the evening he was in Torah,” his daughter Nechamie told COLlive.com. “He kept focused and never looked out of his lane.”
During a Yechidus with the Rebbe, R’ Elie plainly asked what was his mission in life. The Rebbe replied that he should learn Chassidus with Sephardic Jews because they have pure faith in tzadikim and are a suitable receptor (keli) for Chassidic teachings.
R’ Elie made it his mission to teach Torah and Chassidus to anyone interested in learning. He had the regular shiurim he gave at the shul of the “Yeshiva,” and also ventured out to teach groups of women, as well as one-on-one shiurim in people’s homes. He did it all in an unassuming manner, insisting on not capturing the limelight or receiving credit for his activities.
Last year, he spent 200 days in the Montreal General Hospital battling coronavirus. He was discharged on Chol Hamoed Sukkos 5781 to the joy of family, friends and neighbors. He turned 79 in the beginning of the year but continued to suffer from health complications until his ultimate passing.
The levaya will take place graveside on Monday 2:00 PM at the Lubavitch section of the Mount-Pleasant Cemetery in Duvernay, Laval, Quebec.
He is survived by his wife Mrs. Rochel Cohen, their children Rabbi Mendel Cohen – Shliach in Sacramento, California; Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Cohen – Mashpia in Chicago, Illinois; Mrs. Esther Tiechtel – Shlucha in Nashville, Tennessee; Rabbi Sholom Ber Cohen – Mashpia in Montreal, Canada; Mrs. Nechamie Brod – Shlucha in Stockton, California; Shmuel Cohen – Montreal, Canada; grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
He is also survived by his brothers Chai Cohen of Toronto, Canada, and Yaakov Cohen of La Jolla, California.
Baruch Dayan Haemes: Eliyahu ben Moshe Hakohen