Community celebrates life of Buffalo Grove Olympian
Rabbi Michael Tillman speaks to a nearly full auditorium Aug. 29 in Congregation Beth Am, which held a memorial service for Irwin Cohen, a Buffalo Grove resident and Olympian in judo. (Ronnie Wachter~Sun-Times Media)
IRWIN COHEN’S JUDO CAREER
• Member of the 1972 U.S. Olympic team for the games in Munich
• Five-time champion at the Maccabiah Games, the international competition for Jewish and Israeli athletes
• First American to defeat a competitor from Japan, where judo was invented in the 1880s
• Six-time national champion
• Eight-time top-ranked judo player
Updated: September 10, 2012 9:04AM
BUFFALO GROVE — Irwin Cohen represented the U.S. in the 1972 Olympics, he was a five-time champion at the Maccabiah Games and was a six-time national champion, but all of those judo accomplishments only scratch the surface of Cohen’s story.
At his memorial service Aug. 29, Congregation Beth Am Rabbi Michael Tillman and four other speakers took a nearly full auditorium further into Cohen’s storied life, detailing his successes in business and as a family man.
Cohen died Aug. 27 at 60 years old after a 12-year battle against a rare disease. His three children — R.J., Aaron and Alana — each spoke briefly about their father’s career as a judo player, which took him around the world and to successes no American before him had achieved.
But Cohen’s kids really focused on the man they knew at home.
Among the many stories he told, R.J. recalled an afternoon many years ago when he saw his dad step on a nail in their backyard. Seeing blood coming out of his foot, the boy ran and got his father a Band-Aid.
“He told everyone I saved his life,” the now adult son said. “I felt so amazing.”
Aaron said he felt amazed at the memorial service, because so many of the judo players his dad competed with — men he grew up revering — had come to honor his father’s memory.
“Most people’s heroes are like Michael Jordan,” Aaron told the audience. “Us, our heroes are in this room right now. Dad made that possible.”
But Aaron added that he still struggled to accept the loss.
“I can’t believe this is true,” he said.
Irwin Cohen represented the United States at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich — where Palestinian terrorists captured and murdered 11 Israeli athletes and coaches — and won numerous championships. When his playing career ended, he and his brother Steve founded Cohen Brothers Judo Club, now open in Mundelein and Chicago.
Cohen grew up in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood and studied at the University of Illinois — Chicago.
But in 1999, family and friends noticed that Irwin was not feeling right. The final diagnosis was amyloidosis, a condition in which the body abnormally deposits proteins in tissues and organs.
He received a kidney transplant five years ago. Rabbi Tillman noted that his last years were hard, though.
“Like a true athlete, he never surrendered,” Tillman said.
Tillman recounted the story of Job and the afflictions he faced, and led the audience in a recitation of Psalm 23, believed to be written by King David after the death of his son. He said that the summation of Irwin’s life was not in his athletics, but in his family.
“What is the legacy that Irwin has left behind?” Tillman asked. “This wonderful man, this great athlete, let us remember him with love.”
“He built something so magical,” R.J. added.
“I’m definitely, truly honored to be a Cohen,” Aaron concluded. “I’m going to carry on your name, your legacy, with pride.”