How a Hasidic woman in St. George is changing Utah’s Jewish community
As the sun rises, so do Chaya Cohen’s three children, ushering in another day for the self-proclaimed “wife, mom, shlucha” who does it all in the small southern Utah Jewish community.
The 27-year-old shlucha, a member of the Chabad Hasidic outreach movement in Judaism who has devoted her life to fostering local Jewish life through service, dons her favorite floral tichel — a hair scarf worn by married women. She takes a deep breath and faces some familiar foes every parent knows: laundry, dishes, paperwork and bills.
After their morning studies and Hebrew reading, Cohen puts on the modest clothing she got from one of her favorite modesty-based Latter-day Saint boutiques, buckles the kids into the car and makes her daily pilgrimage to dayfin acare.
Cohen doesn’t just manage the everyday duties for her own young family. As the local shlucha, or rebbetzin, wife of the St. George Rabbi Mendy Cohen, co-leader of the Chabad house or community center that operates out of her home — and effective matriarch for over 2,000 Jewish households in the area — she has a much larger family to feed, both figuratively and literally.
And yet, she makes time to create relatable videos on motherhood, religion and mental health for her over 5,000 and counting Instagram followers from all over the world.
“It’s not about me at the end of the day. At the end of the day, it’s all in God’s hands and there’s this higher power that’s watching over me and protecting me.”
“We’ve always dreamed of just living in a place where we could be there for others and support a Jewish community,” Cohen said. “It’s not about me at the end of the day. At the end of the day, it’s all in God’s hands and there’s this higher power that’s watching over me and protecting me.”
In a world full of antisemitism, it can be unpleasant to be so open about her religious life online. But, she’s proud to be an authentic religious woman, and she says God will protect her and her family.
Carrying the flame from the heart
Cohen and her family live in an area where Jewish people make up less than 0.1% of the population.
Yet, she welcomes hundreds of tourists from around the world into her home for their Jewish needs, whether that be providing kosher food, religious services, spiritual texts or holiday celebrations. Southern Utah is a growing hub for tourists coming to visit the national parks, and the worshipers all have to fit in her own home in the center of St. George.
“Our home is definitely crowded and we have outgrown the space due to our growing community which is why we are really working hard to raise the funds in order to establish a center on a bigger property outside of our home.”
The Chabad of Southern Utah, a part of the Chabad Lubavitch sect of Hasidic Judaism and run by Cohen with her husband, the rabbi, offers everything from classes on Judaism and Hebrew School for kids, events around Jewish holidays and “Shabbat To-Go,” or the meal that goes with the Jewish Sabbath service cooked by Cohen herself.
All Jewish people are welcome, not just those who are Orthodox, she said. And though the Chabad is entirely nonprofit and relies on donations, no one will be turned away due to a lack of funds. It’s about making people feel less alone.
This week, the Chabad is celebrating Hanukkah, one of the more well-known Jewish holidays outside the faith and one of Cohen’s favorite times of the year. Hundreds of people from all over the state came to see the lighting of a 12-foot menorah in St. George on Sunday. On Tuesday, dozens more went to the Chabad’s first menorah lighting in Cedar City, including some rabbis from California who made the trip just for the occasion.
“It’s basically a way for Jewish people everywhere to say, ‘I’m loud, I’m proud and I’m happy to be Jewish,’” Cohen said. “That’s why I love Hanukkah because it just really brings out that sense of Jewish pride.”
Another big part of her support for Jewish communities is her participation in a program called Project HEART, or Hebrew Education for At Risk Teens, founded by her father, the Italian-born Rabbi Benny Zippel, in 1992.
Project HEART brings the comfort of Jewish life to both Jewish and non-Jewish teens in residential treatment centers across the state, which treat adolescents with mental illnesses and behavioral issues who have few other places to turn. These centers have been the center of controversy recently with allegations of abuse rising from former patients.
These centers are located across Utah, and Project HEART strives to assist Jewish students or patients who come for treatment. But recently some of the centers have been the subject of controversy and public scrutiny, particularly after Paris Hilton and others publicly shared negative stories and experiences after staying at these facilities.
“They’re coming for treatment and to get better,” said Cohen, acknowledging the recent controversy surrounding these schools. “I’m really happy that there are all these regulations in place to ensure the safety of the children and to ensure the progress and success that they make here.”
Some of these kids, she says, are Jewish teens who become not only isolated from their normal lives but also their religion, which Cohen says can be “very traumatic.”
“These kids are really going through some serious traumas and just to show them unconditional love, not for anything in return, but just for the sake of loving them because they’re Jewish and because we care about them, because they’re part of the community — I really connected with that and that was something that I was like, that’s what I want to do with my life,” Cohen said.
Whether that is giving them access to kosher food, conducting religious services, one-on-one spiritual counseling or even just having a conversation with someone who “knows the lingo,” Cohen and her extended family are always busy visiting teens in crisis to help them holistically heal.
“The staff understands that these are values that are important to the kids, and this religion and keeping them connected is really healing for them.”
But Cohen isn’t just integrated into the local Jewish community. She “adores” the Latter-day Saint community she’s encountered, whether they are neighbors or staff at the centers in which she serves, she says the local Latter-day Saint community has been “helpful and respectful.”
“They really want to help their students and the LDS community values religion. And so the staff understands that these are values that are important to the kids, and this religion and keeping them connected is really healing for them,” Cohen said.
While her work with Project HEART was one reason that brought her from her hometown of Sugar House to St. George, where there is a high density of teen residential schools, her dream of opening the first synagogue in the rapidly growing area has driven her for years.
But Project HEART, her Chabad Jewish Center and all the services she provides are nonprofit, which “presents a struggle in the sense that our income is completely unpredictable.”
“There’s no such thing as a paycheck,” Cohen said. “All of these things fall solely on our shoulders and so it’s a big deal, but I would not trade it for the world.”
‘I have so much more to say’
As her day goes on, Cohen’s home is filled with the warm smells of baking challah, the distant beeping of a washing machine, the clanking of folding tables being put away from an event the night before, the click-clack of a computer keyboard where she’s balancing her budget and later, the pitter-patter of little feet come home from day care.
Above it all, before anything else, Cohen is a mother to two sons and a daughter under 5. But sometimes it can all be overwhelming to “swim in the ocean of parenthood,” so she takes to Instagram Reels to laugh it off with her thousands of followers.
“I really just started it as an ‘I really enjoy watching Reels let me see if other people will also enjoy watching Reels’ kind of thing and it just became a really fun thing from there and I’ve grown this really fun community,” she said.
Cohen has been posting these short videos about the happy and not-so-glamorous parts of motherhood to trending audios under the username “@wife_mom_shlucha” since 2019.
“It was such a good feeling of I’m not alone in this like we’re going through this together,” she said. “And then I was like, why are there no religious women doing this? ... I don’t know if it was looked on as taboo, but I said you know what, this is gonna be so fun.”
Outside of the comedy, however, Cohen has also seen it as an opportunity to share about her religion and mental health, using the platform as a kind of extension of her day job in Jewish outreach work all over the world.
“I’m reaching people who are more curious about the realities of life ... craving that honesty and the open conversation that it’s not all rosy and dandy and that life can be tricky.”
“I don’t like giving off this image and this persona that I’m just this comedian, I have so much more to say and I have so much more substance,” she said. “I get to expand that reach now and be there for people not only in my community here in St. George but for people who are going through the same things all over the world. I’m reaching people who are more curious about the realities of life ... and who could be not needing any spiritual guidance from me, but they’re still craving that honesty and the open conversation that it’s not all rosy and dandy and that life can be tricky.”
Her brother, Rabbi Avrohom ‘Avremi’ Zippel, who is better known as the “@utahrabbi,” also uses social media to show the good and the bad, both talking about his rabbinic calling and how his childhood sexual abuse shaped his life. He won his case against his abuser in 2019 and continues to be an advocate for survivors of sexual abuse.
As an openly orthodox content creator, Cohen sees her platform as an opportunity to showcase the joy of being a religious woman and advocate for authenticity in every facet of life.
“I’m not oppressed,” she said. “My life is full of purpose. Women are the foundation and without them, there’s no way to have success.”
‘You just wait’
Although Cohen is very open about her faith online, not every experience is joyful.
Antisemitism is on the rise. Watchdog organization Anti-Defamation League reported over 2,700 incidents of antisemitic behavior across the country in 2021, the highest it has seen since it started tracking such incidents in 1979.
While this year’s numbers have not been released yet, the recent controversy over Kanye West’s antisemitic statements has put every Jewish person on edge.
“It’s terrifying that we’re in the 21st century and people feel that it’s OK to say these horrible and disturbing things,” she said. “I have chills even thinking about it.”
While Cohen said her family has had a great experience in Utah and hasn’t been subject to any big antisemitic attacks, the state is not immune from this behavior. Just this year, graffiti of a swastika was found under the desk in a Jewish teacher’s Park City classroom. In May, swastikas were drawn in yearbooks at a Sandy private school. And in October, swastika graffiti was found in a tunnel underneath I-80 in Park City.
“Not everybody’s the same whether you’re talking about mental health or religion or parenthood or humor or anything in life.”
But what antisemitics don’t realize, Cohen said, is that “all they’re doing is fueling our flame and making us stronger.
“You’re going to put us down and you’re going to talk about Hitler in such a disrespectful way? You better wait and see what a big Hanukkah party we’re gonna throw and how proud we’re going to be Jewish,” she said. “You just wait and see what you are sparking within us. While you’re trying to push us down, you’re just helping us rise up and encouraging us to be stronger and louder and better Jews. You’re not going to tear us down because there have been people trying to tear us down from the beginning of time and we’re still standing.”
‘Life’s not cookie cutter’
As the sun begins to set over the red rock hills, Cohen picks up her kids from day care. They have a Moroccan fish dinner, a family recipe from her Canadian-born husband’s grandmother, and chocolate chip cookies. After the kids go to bed, her Rabbi husband goes out to teach classes on spiritual subjects. She takes a breather and posts a reel about mom life, chuckling.
Juggling it all while managing her mental health is a challenge. Yet at the end of the day, she feels fulfilled knowing that she has her family and her religion — what she values most in life.
“Being a part of this community has only increased my value and purpose in life. I feel so connected to God in a positive way,” she said. “If there’s one message I can impart, it’s that life’s not cookie cutter, not everybody’s the same whether you’re talking about mental health or religion or parenthood or humor or anything in life. It’s not one size fits all. We’re just a normal family living our life.”