The aftermath of the Sago mine explosion captured my attention and rent my heart, the same as for millions of other Americans. It also drew me in as a journalist concerned with the history and future of social justice in this country.
The stories of the 12 miners killed in the disaster and those of their families are riveting enough, highlighting the human drama and consequences behind such a tragedy. But also riveting are the facts regarding the mine’s many health and safety violations and how federal officials seemed to be missing in action.
You may be asking what any of this has to do with anything Jewish- the same question I asked myself, a writer who focuses largely on Jewish matters, as the story unfolded.
The Jewish community in West Virginia is minuscule- about 2,300 affiliated members largely confined to four cities, and a remote Appalachian hollow is the last place anyone would expect to find someone Jewish. The relatively few Jews who migrated to the state in the late 1800s and early 1900s arrived not to work in the coalfields but to establish businesses that served the miners.
That’s why more than a few people were curious when at least two news organizations, The New York Times and CNN, interviewed Peggy Cohen, the daughter of one of the dead miners, Fred Ware Jr. CNN’s coverage also included an interview with Cohen’s husband, Aaron, a name that sounds even more Jewish.
Could it be that the grieving relatives of at least one miner, living on the same street as the Sago Baptist Church, where the families had gathered to hear news of their loved ones, identified as Jewish and were possibly turning for solace to other Jews?
While seeking an answer to that question, which required contacting the Cohens as they mourned their father and father-in-law, I wrestled with the notion of calling a grieving family. But I reasoned that such a story, if it panned out, could be of help both to the family and the Jewish community by putting each in touch with the other. I was also driven by the sense of myself as a journalist committed above all to getting a story and amplifying one small patch of the world for others who may be interested.
After calling members of the West Virginia Jewish community, none of whom knew of the Cohens, I finally reached the family the old-fashioned way: through the phone book. What I learned is that for the Jewish press at least, no story existed.
Aaron Cohen, speaking the day after his father-in-law’s funeral, confirmed that he is Jewish, but said his wife, who grew up attending the Sago Baptist Church, is not. Moreover, Cohen, a firefighter, hasn’t been an affiliated or practicing Jew for many years and hadn’t even known of any organized Jewish community in the state.
The Cohens met through friends and lived outside West Virginia until October, when they moved to Buckhannon, a tight-knit community of 6,000, so Peggy Cohen could be close to her family, Aaron Cohen said. He also said he had been more connected to his Judaism as a child, when his family lived "literally everywhere." But the harassment he and his brother faced in a small Kansas town, the home of only two Jewish families, prompted the young Cohen to distance himself.
"What happened was terrible," he said, "and I did what I needed to do."
Although no Jewish angle could be found, the search for one has produced a basic lesson for me: the vital role that a sense of community occupies in Jewish life. For Jewish life to flourish, people need to feel as if they belong to something larger than themselves. They need the give-and-take and support that a community can offer.
That plays out in the experience of Aaron Cohen, who lacking that sense of community as a child, effectively removed himself from the Jewish world. It plays out in the life of Betsy Gooding, a synagogue president in Charleston, who upon learning that the relatives of one miner might be Jewish, asked for the family’s number so she could get a rabbi to call them.
And it plays out, of course, for a reporter who, wondering why the possibility of a Jewish side to this story so moved him, now has an answer: the sense of community.
Doug Chandler is a freelance writer based in Queens.