It is with great sadness that I pass on the news of the death of Rabbi Michael Cook, a dear friend, teacher, mentor, and one of the founders of We Are For Israel.
Michael used to joke with me that when I was at Hebrew Union College that he didn’t “know how wise I was.” Not really what you want to hear from someone who graded your papers! I never was sure quite how to take that, but I think that he meant that once we started communicating frequently, generally about Israel, HUC-JIR, GUCI, and the Reform movement, that we became pretty close and he came to appreciate my thoughts.
Michael’s class was my favorite when I was at HUC. I loved how he used reason to analyze the texts. Michael’s ability to reason through a situation, to see the impact of systems and the implications of minute details in a text or in a real life situation, always piqued my interest. Over the years. I have taught Michael’s understanding of Christian Scriptures no few times, and helped to bring him in to teach to multiple groups to which I belonged.
Because I turned more to pulpit work, learning to be a better pulpit rabbi and concentrating less on my prior academic interests, I didn’t really interact with Michael for much of my time at HUC or for the first few years of my rabbinate. But then we began communicating again in 2008, when his book came out, and in in 2009 and 2010 as we defended the Cincinnati campus and as we formed We Are For Israel arguing for a “Centrist and Realistic” resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we communicated nearly every day, often multiple times a day.
Michael was one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met and also one of the limited number of truly courageous ones, speaking out about what he believed to be correct, even when it was unpopular with his friends and colleagues and when he knew there would be personal cost. He was an inspiration to me and a strong advocate for Israel.
I always enjoyed seeing him at Goldman Union Camp Institute in the summer and several times came early to camp to spend just an hour or two with him before he and Judy, another amazing Rabbi and good friend with whom I have had the pleasure of working at GUCI over the years, headed home.
Michael was a man of short physical stature, but an immense presence. He had a radio announcer’s voice and whenever I think of his teaching, I hear his words in that surprisingly deep voice, rising at the end expressing incredulity, drawing in your attention.
Rabbi Michael Cook leaves a tremendous legacy of teaching, of sanity and reason, of profound attention paid to the issues about which he was concerned, of friendship and mentorship, and of courage in the face of peer pressure.
He was an inspiration.
Michael Cook will be dearly missed.