By Richard Friedman
Mindy Cohen had just returned from Israel.
It was a bittersweet trip for the Birmingham woman who was joyful at being back in the country after 17 years. Yet she also was burdened by an unimaginable tragedy few have ever encountered.
The collapse of the Champlain Towers South condominium building in Surfside, Fla., on June 24, 2021, claimed the lives of her husband, Gary, and his brother, Brad.
Gary had traveled to South Florida to visit his ailing father and was staying with his brother at his 11th floor condo at Champlain Towers South when the building crumbled.
A warm and gregarious man with a passion for life and Jewish learning, Gary, a beloved doctor at the Tuscaloosa VA Medical Center, was easy to talk to and even easier to like. The Cohen family tragedy has been widely chronicled locally and nationally.
Now, 15 months later, after being in Israel for three weeks this past summer, Mindy reflected.
She went for two reasons — to volunteer at the World Maccabiah Games and for the unveiling of new medical equipment at Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem in Jerusalem in memory of Gary and Brad, also a physician. “Going to Hadassah Hospital was a big part of the trip,” said Mindy.
Three different U.S. Hadassah regions raised money in memory of the two brothers. Additional dollars were raised through a tennis mixer last spring. The funds were used to buy equipment for the operating room. “I felt a tremendous sense of pride that we honored their legacy in such an important way, especially because both brothers were physicians. I know that they really would have been proud of us.”
Lighting the Way
As a story from Hadassah explained, “Gary and Brad’s names are illuminated above the entrance to Room 1 in the Orthopedics Department in the Sarah Wetsman Davidson Tower. The recognition is called ‘Lighting the Way,’ and a Hadassah official praised Mindy for lighting the way toward healing. Prof. Iri Liebergall, head of the Orthopedics Department, provided a personal tour of the futuristic operating theaters to Mindy and a delegation of her family and friends.”
“I teared up when I saw their names in lights,” said Mindy. “It really hit me that this would be permanent, in perpetuity. I just want their legacy to be remembered.”
The Cohen family has a long attachment to Hadassah and Israel. Mindy and Gary met on a trip to Israel when they were in their 20s. Mindy is a former Birmingham Hadassah co-president and Gary’s aunt was a national president. Gary also had an uncle who was the Israeli navy’s first admiral.
There also was a yahrzeit ceremony at the Maccabiah Village marking the first anniversary of Gary and Brad’s death. About a thousand people were there. Right before the program started, Mindy, a thoughtful, soft-spoken woman who chooses her words carefully, was asked if she would speak. She did, without preparation, reflecting on the loss of Gary and Brad. “I did okay,” she noted with pride.
The Hadassah dedication and Maccabiah yahrzeit ceremony, as powerful as they were, were not the only bittersweet moments for Mindy during her time in Israel. “Some of the places I went to I remembered traveling there with Gary when we were in our 20s — Masada, the Dead Sea, places like that. I have pictures of us doing all these things so there were some tough moments.”
Now 57, the challenge Mindy faces is how to move forward. “It is a balancing act. Some days it is hard to get out of bed. At night it is lonely, I try to be strong for my kids, I know I have to keep moving forward, I know that is what Gary would want from me.” Mindy has two grown sons, one of whom got married a few weeks before the condo collapse.
The Cohens came to Birmingham in 2006 for Gary’s job. He received his medical education at Nova Southeastern University in Miami where Mindy has started a named fund in his memory for an academic society.
Upon arriving in Birmingham, Mindy, who grew up in Atlanta, became involved in the Jewish community as a volunteer and program staff person at the Levite Jewish Community Center. She continues her community involvement today, volunteering for several organizations.
Resilient, like Israel
Being in Israel during the Maccabiah Games, considered to be the Olympics of the Jewish world, was uplifting — and particularly meaningful. “Gary was a sportsman. He was a tennis player. I think he would have been very proud of me for being able to go there, volunteering and impacting on lives.”
Still the condo collapse is never far from her heart. There are the ongoing emotional issues coupled with complex legal issues involving lawsuits and a financial settlement.
At the yahrzeit service, Mindy met another family whose son and son’s girlfriend died in the building collapse. It turned out that his sister had been on a trip to Israel with Mindy’s son in 2017.
“It seems every time I talk to somebody there is a connection to that building through that horrible experience. Unfortunately I have this common bond with a lot of people I never knew before, and we stay in touch — it is hard for people to really understand the depth of the pain. Obviously it wasn’t just a tragedy for one person, it was a tragedy for 98 people.”
How did she feel when she realized that she had a connection with this other family? “I felt so sad for them that they had lost their child. I lost my husband — but it is a different type of loss. Either way, this is a club that I had never wanted to be part of.”
Like Israel itself, which has displayed a remarkable resilience to bounce back from horrible tragedies, Mindy is committed to bouncing back — never forgetting but forging forward, especially as the new Jewish year unfolds.
Her determination was typified by what she called the single most emotional moment of her trip — putting a prayer note in the Western Wall.
“I asked God for a lot of things for my family and myself. I obviously prayed for my children; for them to have strength, comfort and good health. I prayed for a way to keep moving forward and doing positive things and to figure out what I am going to do with my life now that I am starting over.”
The note she inserted into the Western Wall’s ancient crevices was filled completely. On it she had written to God about things going on in her own life and the lives of her family. She also wrote about Covid, the war in Ukraine and the safety of the people in Israel.
“By going to Israel, I was hoping to reconnect with my Judaism by being there and move forward with my life. I am struggling with a lot of things, yet it was very powerful being at the Western Wall. I felt the presence of God.”