Dealing with the death of a loved one is often a grueling and challenging process. But for Linda Cohen, the death of a family member became the inspiration for an intensive, meaningful, and spiritually uplifting journey to heal herself by reaching out to those around her.
Cohen’s new book, 1000 Mitzvahs: How Small Acts of Kindness Can Heal, Inspire, and Change Your Life, chronicles her journey to complete several mitzvot—Jewish commandments, as presented in the Torah—over a period of two-and-a-half years.
“The project was a really positive experience for me, and it helped me move away from a place of darkness and grief,” said Cohen. “I began to feel really inspired and hopeful.”
Cohen lost her father in 2006, and her ambitious mitzvah project came to fruition when she realized the benefit of taking a “spiritual Sabbatical,” as she explains.
“After my father’s death, I needed to take time off; to grieve, to go to synagogue, and to do meditation and yoga. That’s when I had the idea of doing 1000 mitzvahs,” she said.
After looking at a journal she kept in the month before her father died, and reading a book that focused on fulfilling mitzvot after somebody has passed away, Cohen started a blog to document her journey of giving back.
“My mitzvot were anything from holding a door open for someone, to putting change in a tzedakah can, to volunteering in my child’s classroom, to running an auction, to taking recycled bags to the grocery store,” she said.
The process became an important learning experience for Cohen, and also provided a unique opportunity to engage her family and friends in service and discussion.
“My kids were 6 and 9 at the time, so we talked about each mitzvah and whether or not it counted as one of the Jewish commandments. It was a great teaching moment,” she said.
As Cohen reached the end of her journey, she wanted to execute a large-scale project to mark the culmination of 2 ½ years’ work. She decided to run a food drive for a local pantry, as her father loved food and was an avid cook. With the help of her family, Cohen collected thousands of pounds worth of donations.
“When I saw my father’s name on the bags of food, it felt really special, like he and I had done something together,” she said.
Cohen’s book, which was published this October, describes each mitzvah through short vignettes, and is also filled with personal anecdotes about family traditions, spiritual healing, and the process of grieving.
“I find that people really connect to the idea of grief, and finding ways to address grief,” she said. “It’s a subject that people don’t like to talk about, but I wanted to shed new light on it.”
This is Cohen’s first book, but certainly not her first foray into the Jewish world. After spending her childhood in Sudbury, Massachusetts, and her adolescence with her father in Ludlow, Vermont, Cohen moved to the west coast to obtain an undergraduate degree from the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University) in Los Angeles. She then went to Brandeis to complete her graduate degree in Jewish communal service.
“Writing the book and speaking about it has brought back all of the things I studied in school, and I love sharing my knowledge with Jewish communities around the country,” she said.
Cohen lives with her family in Portland, Oregon, and has recently hit the road to promote her book at Jewish community centers and local bookstores throughout the west coast. She hopes to continue sharing her inspiring story and igniting a passion for service in those who are also grappling with grief.
“I’ve had many different people come to my book talks,” she said. “Everybody knows that they are going to deal with grief in their lives, and many people aren’t sure how to do it. The fact that I found a way that worked is inspiring, and maybe people will start their own projects now.”
And though Cohen had “never considered herself a writer, just someone who had a lot to share,” she now hopes to continue incorporating her love for writing and community service in her everyday life.
“I’m always looking for ways to pay it forward,” she said.
For more information on Linda Cohen and 1000 Mitzvahs, check out her website. Photos are also from the website.