three kids stand together
Elliot Cohen (left) with his siblings, Debbie and Neil, in the 1970s (Courtesy/Neil Cohen)

Mourning Elliot, a homeless Jew I knew, as deserving of respect as any of us

When I moved to Placerville several years ago, I became involved with the homeless community. Once a month I planned a lunch, shopping, cooking and delivering it to various locations, as part of the FAITH program. In the winter, when churches provided overnight shelters, I volunteered for the graveyard shift once a week.

That’s how I met Elliot, one of the homeless men. He was a pleasant and friendly guy, although very picky with his food, and he would look at what I was offering that day for lunch before accepting it. He much preferred a cash donation so he could buy his own meal at McDonald’s. I didn’t find out he was Jewish until a year after I met him, when I learned that his name was Elliot Cohen.

When I found out he was Jewish, I tried to reach out in a more personal and meaningful way. He had no interest in religion, although he was proud to be a Jew, and he had been to Israel. A very private person, he was not forthcoming with information, but I found out where he was born and raised, and where he had lived. I surreptitiously took a photo of Elliot, and with the help of Rabbi Yossi Grossbaum from Chabad in Folsom, I wrote to Jewish communities on Long Island, hoping to find his family. I was not successful. When Elliot died in April at age 57, a sheriff’s department was able to locate and notify his family.

a somewhat shabby man stands on a sunlit sudewalk
Elliot Cohen

After his death, his brother shared some of Elliot’s story. Originally from the Bronx, Elliot grew up on Long Island, enjoyed a pretty normal childhood, had one brother and one sister, both younger. He got good grades in school, but instead of attending college he joined the Navy. He was trained to work on a nuclear submarine, but after two years he was discharged and his journey into mental illness began. Over the years he traveled to Israel, Las Vegas and California, slowly losing contact with his family. The last time he had contact with them was nine years ago, when he phoned his mother.

Elliot was a solitary individual. He had his spot downtown where he could be found rain or shine, shirtless in the summer, listening to his music on his earphones. After getting kicked out of the park, where he would sleep, he would sneak back in and sleep on the floor of the bathroom, preferring the women’s to the men’s as it was cleaner. He also slept behind stores, in the area set aside for trash.

At the memorial service, I heard people speak of his demons. I don’t know whether or not Elliot had demons, but I do know he appeared happy and content. But living on the streets is not an easy life. A friend told me that last winter he asked to sit in her car for a bit, as he was so cold. His autopsy determined that he died from heart disease, which took his father at about the same age.

Homelessness is a challenge everywhere, but Placerville may be a more hostile environment. This past year, there was a motion before the City Council to make Placerville a non-welcoming community for immigrants.

The Placerville government did not want the homeless in town. The police harassed them on the street, and were known to transport them to Folsom. When I first moved there, many camped in a city park; the city ended that. An individual donated land and opened Hangtown Haven, a wonderful place with sites for camping, portable potties and showers. We could even deliver meals there. The city closed it down.

When I learned that Elliot had been found dead on the sidewalk in his sleeping bag, I notified Rabbi Grossbaum, who arranged a Jewish burial in Folsom. The rabbi posted a fundraiser on Facebook to cover the $2,000 necessary, and I was blown away by the response: Fifty-six people donated well over that amount in just three days. These were not people who knew Elliot; they were Jews from around the country and the world who stepped up so that a Jew, any Jew, could have an appropriate burial. Thirty people attended Elliot’s burial, including Jews from Sacramento who wanted to make sure there was a minyan.

The Federated Church in Placerville put on a moving memorial service for Elliot the following Saturday, which his brother from New York attended. It was standing room only at the church, with several hundred attending. People shared their remembrances, and an honor guard gave his brother a folded flag, as Elliot was a veteran.

I am writing this in honor of Elliot, and also to remind everyone: When we see a homeless person on the street, we don’t know their circumstances, or what led them there. But we should all remember: They are all sons or daughters, or parents, siblings or friends. It is not for us to judge them. But hopefully we can treat them with kindness, respect, compassion and generosity, as befits all of God’s children.

Zichrono l’vracha — may his memory be for a blessing.

Judah Rosen

Judah Rosen now lives in Sacramento. Previously, he lived in San Francisco for 40 years and was a member of Congregation Beth Sholom.