Strength to Stand (Rabbi David Cohen #2)

Strength to Stand (Rabbi David Cohen #2)

Strength to Stand

(Rabbi David Cohen #2)

FICTION / Thrillers / Psychological

When Rabbi Batya Zahav first suspects she’s the victim of an anti-Jewish stalker, she enlists the help of her colleague, Rabbi David Cohen. Soon her husband Arik, an Israeli-born Minneapolis cop, is also on the case. As the stalker’s anonymous persecution increases in violent intensity, it falls to David to identify the stalker before someone gets hurt and before the stalker carries out the latest chilling threat.

2016 National Indie Excellence Award finalist

Big Question: How much intolerance must we tolerate? And if the answer is “none,” aren’t we being intolerant?

Buy the book:

“A smart mystery full of Jewish learning and lore.”

Rabbi David Wolpe, Max Webb Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and best-selling author of Making Loss Matter

“Sheyna Galyan has authored a poignant and enlightened story that explores the complexities of the Jewish culture and draws its readers into the lives of two families struggling with their respective roles within that community—all the while dealing with an ominous stalker who is promising to deliver death and destruction to their world.”

Allen Eskens, award-winning and bestselling author of Nothing More Dangerous

“At times playful and at times unsettling, Sheyna Galyan’s Strength to Stand blends insightful humor, riveting suspense, and an obvious love for Judaism. A charming, chilling book that places Rabbi David Cohen alongside Harry Kemelman’s David Small and Faye Kellerman’s Peter Decker in the pantheon of observant Jewish crime-stoppers. One of the most engaging books of the year.”

Jacob M. Appel, award-winning author of Phoning HomeThe Biology of Luck, and the Rabbi Kappelmacher mystery series

Read the first chapter

IT CAME IN the mail.

Rabbi Batya Zahav gathered the envelopes from the wall-mounted brass mailbox outside her St. Louis Park rambler and quickly retreated inside, her fingers already stiff from the December cold. On her way to the dining room, she leafed through the usual assortment of bills, advertisements, and appeals for donations, but one handwritten envelope caught her eye. No stamp, no return address. Curious, she turned it over, ripped open the seal, and unfolded the single page. As she stared at the words, uncomprehending, she felt her chest tighten, her heart pounding loudly. She dropped the letter instinctively, as if it had burned her, the paper tumbling onto the dining room table.

Her hands shaking, she backed away and grabbed the phone from the kitchen, pressed the speed dial, and listened to a single ring before she ended the call and selected a different number.

“HONESTLY, I’M NOT TRYING to be argumentative,” Ellen Forman said to the rabbi’s secretary, a faint New York accent in her voice. “But my appointment has been postponed once already and now you’re asking me to change it again? I’m starting to get the feeling maybe he doesn’t want to see me.”

“It’s not that at all, I assure you. It’s as I said on your answering machine earlier this morning: something came up and if you’re willing, he’d like to reschedule.”

“I’ve been in class all morning so I haven’t been able to check my messages. If he’s avoiding me, at least he could do me the courtesy of telling me to my face.”

Hearing the voices through his closed door, Rabbi David Cohen set down his pen and tucked the half-written page under a corner of his telephone. He buttoned the collar of his shirt and straightened his tie while getting up, ignoring the stomachache
that had plagued him all day. Opening the door, he saw his secretary, Kristen Ferguson, looking flushed with frustration. She gave him a tiny smile of relief.

“I’m not avoiding you,” David broke in, coming up next to Ellen as she turned around to face him. “Something did come up, but clearly it’s more important that I keep our appointment. I’m sorry this has been so upsetting for you.”

Ellen looked at him as if whatever had come up would somehow be physically apparent. “Not nearly as upsetting as why I’m here in the first place.”

“Come in and tell me about it.”

Ellen made her way into his study, draped her long coat over one of the two ersatz leather chairs facing his desk, and sat. Tall and athletic, she was dressed in a long denim skirt and ankle-high boots. A black turtleneck sweater accented the golden highlights in her shoulder-length hair, focusing attention on
her intense brown eyes, which were looking directly at him.

He sat down in the chair next to her, momentarily tempted to seek refuge behind his desk. His experience with Ellen Forman in the few months that she’d been a member at Beth Israel had rarely left him feeling like he’d held his own with her.

“What’s going on, Ellen?”

“Have you noticed an entire population missing from shul?”

“Well, there’s everyone who doesn’t come.” Perhaps humor would soften the tension in the air.

“In other words, no, you haven’t noticed.”

Apparently, humor was not going to work. “I’m honestly not sure what population you’re talking about, Ellen. I notice when regulars stop coming, and I notice new and returning faces, but I can’t say that I’ve noticed an entire population missing.”

“Singles, Rabbi. Young adult singles. College students, graduate students, working people. No spouse, no kids. Maybe not yet or maybe never.”

“Aren’t most of the college students active at Hillel?”

“I’m not at the University of Minnesota. I’m at William Mitchell. And yes, there’s a very good Jewish Law Students Association there, but it’s not the place or even the time to meet singles. I’d much rather meet other singles when I don’t have to concentrate on school or work. Shabbat afternoon, for instance, is a good time to meet people without pressure. But there are precious few singles in shul to meet.”

“Why do you think that is?”

Ellen shifted diagonally in the chair and crossed her legs, draping one arm over the chair back. “Because synagogues are so family-oriented that they’re practically exclusive. Singles of any age don’t feel welcome. And this synagogue is no different.”

David shook his head thoughtfully. “Everyone is welcome to come to services, classes, other events, regardless of their marital status. I can see where some of the holidays might be more family-oriented, but—”

“You don’t get it, do you?”

David started to speak, then stopped. He let out a small sigh. “I guess I don’t. Please, enlighten me.”

“I did some checking up on you, Rabbi. You came to Minnesota a little over eight years ago, not knowing a soul except for the search committee that hired you. How did you meet people? Socially, I mean.”

“Well, my son was a newborn. We met other people who had babies.”

“What if you hadn’t had kids?”

“My wife met people through the Sisterhood.”

“What if you hadn’t been married?”

David could already see where this was going. “If I’d been single, I’d have come to morning minyan, I’d come on Shabbat and holidays, I’d take classes in the evenings, I’d volunteer at the shul. Inevitably, I’d meet people.”

“Yes, but would you meet other singles? Think about the people who come to the things you just mentioned. Morning minyan, before work, is not a good time to meet other singles. Everyone is rushing off to start their day. Shabbat is one big clique made up of other cliques that all have family in common. After a day full of classes and work, I don’t want to take yet more classes. And I have absolutely nothing in common with Sisterhood women other than being female and Jewish. There’s no one near my age and we don’t share the same interests.”

“What do you want me to do, Ellen? The way I see it, this is partly the responsibility of singles themselves. You have to make yourself available if you want to meet people, and you seem to be saying that singles end their involvement in shul activities because they’re not meeting other singles. Of course you’re not going to meet people if you’re not here.”

“Exactly my point, Rabbi. How do we get singles to come back to shul?”

“I suppose you have some ideas?”

Ellen gave him a hopeful look. “That’s why I came to see

BATYA FELT A THREAD OF RELIEF as the line picked up.

“Shalom, Beth Israel, Rabbi’s office.”

She found her voice. “Kristen, it’s Batya Zahav. Is David around?”

“I’m sorry, he’s in with someone now.”

Batya closed her eyes and pressed the phone against her temple, feeling the smooth plastic and using the sensation to ground herself. “Is there—?” She sighed. “No, I’ll call back a little later.”

“I can have him call you when he’s done,” Kristen offered.

“No, it’s okay.” She thought about curling up under a warm blanket on the sofa and trying to lose herself in a novel. Not only was it cold outside, even by Minnesota standards, but she’d managed to wake up with a splitting headache and chills.

“Is something wrong?” Kristen asked as if reading the tension in her voice. “If this is an emergency . . .”

“No, it’s really okay.” No need to interrupt someone’s time with David just to feel reassured. “I might not be near a phone, so I’ll call back later.” She thanked Kristen and hung up, determined
not to let the fear win.

AFTER ELLEN LEFT, David found himself back at his favorite spot in the doorway between his study and the outer office where Kristen was working. “I’m sorry you had to take the brunt of Ellen’s frustration,” he said.

Kristen added another envelope to a small stack of other outgoing mail and tucked a strand of her copper-red hair behind her ear. “It’s okay,” she said in her slight Texas drawl. “I’m sorry your preparation time was interrupted. When does this have to be done?”

“There’s an interfaith peace service tomorrow night. Rabbi Alan Friedmann was going to speak but caught the flu, so I’m filling in.”

“How’s the sermon coming?”

“It’s not a sermon. Not even a d’var Torah. It’s more of a speech.”

“What’s the difference?”

David unclipped his crocheted kippah, readjusted it on his head, and clipped it back in place. “Sermons usually try to motivate people to act or think differently. Speeches present information or opinions and can be much more impartial.”

“Ah, so you’re going for the diplomatic, non-controversial rabbi act?” Kristen asked, laughter in her green eyes. “I hear that’s a tough one to pull off .”
David couldn’t help but smile. He never expected to have such a close, friendly relationship with his secretary, and he benefited from it in many ways. As soon as he had eliminated the one-up dynamic by insisting she call him by his first name, her personality, humor, and wisdom flourished. Most of all,
he appreciated the way she questioned and challenged him. Whether it was her personality, her perspective, or some combination, it was a quality he treasured and frequently employed.

“I’m going to be standing at the pulpit of a church less than two weeks before Christmas, a giant cross hanging behind me, talking to a mostly Christian audience about the importance of creating peace in our community through tolerance, mutual respect, and religious pluralism. I don’t think it’s the time or place to bring up the Jewish stand against assimilation, or how much I dislike the secular arguments for ‘Chanukah bushes,’ or Christmas trees in public places.”

Kristen grinned. “But if anyone can pull it off, you can. You sure you’re not going to be even a tiny bit controversial?”

David looked up toward the ceiling and stroked his chin, momentarily distracted by a whisker he must have missed when shaving. “I might mention some of the things we have to cope with at this time of year: how religious Jews feel in the midst of frenetic consumerism, Christmas decorations everywhere we look, and the assumption that everyone celebrates Christmas.”

Kristen laughed. “Now that’s the David I expected!

He allowed himself another smile. His stomach, however, was doing nothing of the sort. All joking aside, the last thing he wanted to do was alienate the Christian community right before they celebrated the birth of their messiah: a Jew who, David suspected, would have been one of the first to stand against assimilation.

“By the way,” Kristen interrupted his thoughts, “expect a call from Rabbi Zahav. She called while you were in your meeting and said she’d call back when she was near a phone.”

“Okay, thanks.” He headed out the door, thinking of a can of dried fruit and nuts he’d seen earlier in the kitchen. To Kristen’s questioning look he said, “Writing will require sustenance for fortitude.”

Kristen tapped the bracelet watch on her left wrist.
“Remember, tomorrow night is fast approaching.”

THE AFTERNOON SNACK DID LITTLE to settle David’s stomach and he was staring at the same half-written page, unchanged since Ellen’s arrival, when the intercom buzzed. He pushed the button absently.

“Rabbi Zahav is on the line.”

“Thanks.” He picked up the phone. “Shalom, Batya.”

“Hi, David. I don’t mean to dispense with our usual pleasantries but I have to ask you something.”

“Sure, go ahead.”

“Has anything . . . unusual happened there? Anything out of the ordinary?” Batya sounded rushed and distracted, typical for a Monday at Temple Shalom.

“Nothing that I can think of. Although I was recently informed that the entire singles population has disappeared from the shul. Do you retain any of your post-college singles?”

“Um . . . I’m sorry, David, but I really can’t think about that right now.”

David sat up straight, the receiver feeling sticky in his hand as his palms began to perspire. It wasn’t haste or distraction he heard in Batya’s voice. It was fear.

“What’s wrong, Batya?”

“It’s . . . um . . . it’s probably nothing. Just a couple of hate letters.”

“Sent to the synagogue?”

“The first one was. I found the second one today in my

“Are you at home now?”

“Yes. I couldn’t go in to work today.”

“Have you called Arik?”

“No. Not yet. I want him to know; he’s my husband. But you know how he is, David. What do you think his first reaction would be if he found out some nutcase was sending me nasty letters?”

David formed a mental picture of the big Israeli-born homicide cop, going door to door in relentless pursuit of the letter-sender. “I think everyone with an instinct for self-preservation should stay out of his way.”

“Exactly. I don’t want to make a big deal out of this.”

“It sounds like it’s a big deal already.” David glanced at his watch. Two-forty. “How about if I come over for a few minutes?”

Long silence. “I know you’re busy.”

“Not that busy. I’ll be there in about fifteen minutes.”

“Thank you, David.”

He hung up the phone and stuffed the rough copy of his speech and a handful of books into his briefcase, anticipating he wouldn’t make it back to his study today. Tomorrow’s schedule was back-to-back meetings, so tonight he was going to have to break one of his wife’s long-standing rules and bring work home. He hoped Sara would understand.

Kristen looked up as he left his study and closed the door. “Are you going to be back for your four o’clock?”

“No. I need you to call and cancel it, please.” He handed her a large black appointment planner, partially covered with reminders hastily scrawled on yellow sticky notes. “Here’s my calendar. Go ahead and reschedule with them if you can. I probably won’t be back in today. And one more thing . . .”


“Have we received any unusual or threatening letters lately?”

“Aside from the ‘Dear Rabbi, please join our church’ postcard, no.”

“If anything should arrive, don’t do anything with it and call the police. Tell Betsy and everyone in the main office to do the same thing. Okay?”

“Sure. What’s going on?”

“I don’t know yet. But I’m going to find out.”


“Escalating threats make this a creepy cozy in Minnesota’s Jewish community.”

Julie Kramer, award-winning author of Shunning SarahKilling Kate, and Delivering Death

“Galyan’s latest is rich in culture, suspense, and character. The dialogue snaps, and the action builds. If you’re looking for a rich mystery, you can’t miss with Strength to Stand!”

Jessica Lourey, author of the Lefty-nominated Murder-by-Month mysteries

“Sheyna Galyan’s new mystery, Strength to Stand, is part one-breath-at-a-time suspense, part fascinating depiction of what goes on in a rabbi’s life—both professionally and personally—and part exposé on human motivation. Rich and atmospheric, Galyan seamlessly weaves crime, life, and love in this unforgettable novel.”

Jessie Chandler, award-winning author of the Shay O’Hanlon Caper Series

“Sheyna Galyan’s Strength to Stand is a suspenseful story of three contemporary Jewish families. Its themes of belonging and community raise important issues, yet are thoughtfully interwoven into a very dynamic narrative. Galyan has written a compelling must-read, whether you are Jewish or not.”

Susan Koefod, award-winning author of the Arvo Thorson mystery series

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Destined to Choose (Rabbi David Cohen #1)

Destined to Choose (Rabbi David Cohen #1)

Destined to Choose

(Rabbi David Cohen #1)

FICTION / Psychological / Literary

When a college freshman’s philosophy paper on the Holocaust jeopardizes her relationship with her grandfather, a Shoah survivor, she finds herself alone and afraid on the streets of Minneapolis. Help comes in the form of Rabbi David Cohen, who is struggling with his own personal demons. Trained in both psychology and Talmudic argument, David must help this family face the real issue that divides them. Set against the backdrop of a Jewish holiday of mourning, they bring together their experiences as they confront evil itself and answer a cry for help that no one expected.

2015 National Indie Excellence Award finalist

Big Question: Why is there evil in the world?

Buy the book:

“Accessible to people from different backgrounds, relevant for both Jewish and non-Jewish readers, this book is indeed insightful and deceptively easy to read. It is also fun.”

Rabbi Amy Ariel, author of Friends Forever

“…brilliantly written. Author Sheyna Galyan has done an amazing job of integrating everyday Jewish life with a great meaty story. The depth of this novel is exceptional; the education in Jewish life and customs, mixed with fabulous, multi-layered character development, make this an important novel for readers of all faiths.”

Ellen Stanclift, MA Theology

“Ms. Galyan gives her readers plenty of food for thought in the course of the book. The story and the thoughtful way in which the author and her characters wrestle with some serious issues make Destined to Choose a worthwhile and enjoyable read.”

L. S. Jaszczak

Secret hidden accordion section
Read the first chapter

Rabbi David Cohen threw his pen onto the desk in disgust, uttering a few choice words. He had nearly satisfied his need to vent with the last expletive when he looked up to see Kristen Ferguson, his secretary, standing frozen at the door. She opened her mouth as if to say something, then stopped.
David flashed her an embarrassed smile.

“It’s okay, Kristen. I’m done now.”

She raised an eyebrow, her green eyes appraising. “Is this something I should be getting used to?” she asked in her soft Texas accent.

“Only if I have to keep writing sermons.”

“I think you write great d’var Torahs.” Kristen smiled and lowered her voice conspiratorially. “And I’ve been here long enough now, you can use Hebrew with me.”

David raised his eyebrows in surprise. “I’m impressed; that’s almost perfect. One would be a d’var Torah. More than one are divrei Torah.”

“Okay, so I almost got it.” Kristen gave a half-shrug. “Foreign languages were never my strong point.”

“They’re not easy to write in any language.”

“Ah. Well, I’m sorry to break this to you, David, but I think that’s part of your job.” She glanced at the blank page on his desk.

“Wouldn’t it be easier to write if you used a computer?”

David chuckled. “Have you ever seen me type?”

“Come to think of it, no.”

“There’s a reason for that. Longhand is much faster than these.” He held up his two index fingers, stabbing at imaginary keys in the air.

Kristen absently tucked a strand of her copper-red hair behind her ear. “But you could learn to type. And you could use a computer for all kinds of things. Email with other rabbis, Jewish websites. You could even create your own website and publish stuff. Think of all the people you could reach.”

“Hang on,” David cautioned. “I’m a technical neophyte. Besides, there’s no money in the budget for a computer. I’ll just stick to pen and paper. So, what’s up?”

“Mail just arrived. I thought you might want to see this right away.” She handed him a thin white envelope and left his study.

“Thanks,” David called after her, noting the return address. It had to be a decision about the grant proposal he had written for a series of weekend seminars and monthly classes on mitzvot. Approval meant he could present it to the board as a fully-funded package; denial meant stripping the program to a mere skeleton and dealing with board complaints about finding the money to pay for it. Steeling himself, he opened the envelope, his stomach tightening in knots. He scanned the letter for the expected ‘we regret to inform you’ and couldn’t find it. After reading it twice, the words began to sink in and he grinned with relief. The grant was approved for even more money than he’d expected.

The intercom buzzer momentarily startled him. “Yes?”

Kristen’s voice was slightly muffled. “Avram Rosenfeld is on the phone. He says it’s urgent.”

David set down the letter. “I’ll take it, thanks.” He picked up the phone. “Shalom, Avram, what can I do for you?”

“Rabbi, I need to talk with you!” Avram seemed to be choking on his words. What remained of his German accent made him difficult to understand.

“Slow down, Avram. What’s wrong?”

“It is my granddaughter, Anna. No, it is not her; it is me.” He stopped for a moment, catching his breath. “It is my fault she has run away. I do not know whom else to call. I need to find her, to bring her home.”

David remembered Anna as a shy teenager, overcome with grief when her parents were both killed in a car accident the previous year. He had only seen her once since then, when she attended a Hillel-sponsored discussion he’d led at the nearby University of Minnesota.

“What makes you think she’s run away?”

“I am sad to say it, but we were fighting. She was angry when she left, and I have not seen her again. I am afraid it is my fault.”

“Let’s try to find her instead of assigning blame. Is it possible she went over to the university? Or maybe to a friend’s house?”

“She knows no one at the dorms. It is perhaps possible she is at a friend’s home. I am so worried, Rabbi. Minneapolis is not a safe place for a girl like Anna. You must help me find her.”

“I’ll do what I can, Avram.” David tore a blank page from his writing pad and wrote Anna’s name and address on it, adrenaline giving him a rush he found both exciting and disturbing. He asked Avram several questions about Anna’s appearance and current interests, writing the answers down on the page. The overall profile gave him a sinking feeling.

“Do you have any idea why she might have left?”

There was a long silence on the other end. “She left because of me. Because I told her I did not want her living here anymore. How could I have said such a thing?” Avram’s voice broke. “I cannot live if anything happens to her!”

“I’m sure she’s okay, Avram.” David made sure his own concern didn’t reach his voice.

“Start from the beginning, and tell me what happened.”

“We had a very big fight the day before Yom HaShoah, and it has not been better since. I thought she would get over it, but we keep fighting. Then yesterday morning I wake up and find her cooking bacon, which she eats in front of me. It is a slap in my face. Worse, it is a slap in God’s face. I was angry and said many things I should not have said. Then she left for her job at the daycare center and I have not seen her again.”

“Have you called the daycare center?”

“Yes. They said she quit shortly after she came in yesterday.”

“What about her friends?” David suggested. “Have you called any of them?”

“Yes. I called her best friend from last year, but she has not seen Anna since they went out last week. I do not have a number for anyone else.”

“Does Anna have an address book?”

“Yes! Why did I not think of that? Will you wait for a moment while I find it?”

“Sure.” David thought for a moment about all of the teenagers he’d counseled over the years. Anna’s recent history placed her in the high-risk category, and running away wasn’t out of the question.

Avram came back on the line. “I have it here. At least some of her friends are listed in here. I recognize names she has talked about.”

“Okay, Avram. Call her other friends, even her classmates. See if any of them know where she is. It’s very possible she just went somewhere to cool off and let you do the same.”

“Perhaps. And perhaps she will be home tonight. We have a long-standing rule in our house that fights are resolved or at least put aside for Shabbos. She has never missed a Shabbos dinner. But I will call her friends, as you suggest.”

David sensed denial creeping into the older man’s voice. “Good. Let me know what you find out. You can reach me here until about four-thirty, but probably not after that since Shabbat services start tonight at six.”

“I will. I am sure you are right, and I will find her having fun with her friends. Thank you, Rabbi.”

David hung up the phone, pain tugging at his heartstrings. Having lost his own father after many years of illness as a direct result of the Shoah, he always felt a certain kinship with the older man. And the fact that both his father and Avram came from the same area of Germany added another dimension to their relationship with which David wasn’t always comfortable.

He glanced at the clock and drew the curtains of his mind shut against the decades-old memories. Setting aside his concern for Anna, he knew there was nothing more he could do until he heard from Avram again.

Read the discussion questions
    1. To which part(s) of the story do you think the title relates? What is the choice, and why is it destined? Is there more than one choice, and if so, which ones are inherently required?

    1. How does free will play a role in the story? Do you think it adequately explains the issues raised concerning how people treat one another? Why or why not? What other explanations might you give?

    1. With which character could you most identify? Why? Which character motivated you the most? In what way?

    1. One of the themes of the book is reconciliation. To what extent do you think reconciliation is important today? What limits do you think should be placed on attempts to reconcile?

    1. If you could spend a day with one character from the book, asking any question you wanted, with whom would you spend that day, and what would you ask?

    1. In the book, David struggles with balancing work and family life, which is a common problem for congregational clergy, who are always on call. What solutions would you suggest for someone in this position? Have issues of work-life balance affected you, and if so, how have you dealt with it?

    1. How does the presentation of egalitarian Judaism make Destined to Choose different from or similar to other works of Jewish fiction you’ve read?

    1. In what ways does the book address the assimilation of difficult experiences, such as child abuse, bullying, mental health issues? How does it address the integration of the Shoah into the psyche of the Jewish community?

    1. How does the book’s setting in Minneapolis affect the story? In what way might the story be affected if it took place in a bigger city such as Los Angeles or New York? How might it be affected in a small town?

  1. Does Destined to Choose support or challenge your idea of Jews and Judaism? How?

Download the discussion questions

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