EXCLUSIVE: Tech Rabbi becomes sensation dispensing advice on ‘creative courage’

Rabbi Michael Cohen wears many hats but he is first and foremost an educator.

By Joseph Wolkin, World Israel News

Rabbi Michael Cohen, the self-described ‘Tech Rabbi,’ is a Los Angeles-based Jewish influencer who helps student and teachers unlock creative potential.

Rabbi Cohen published Educated by Design: Designing the Space to Experiment, Explore, and Extract Your Creative Potential in 2019.

He also created DubbleUp, an organization to empower teenagers to launch startups.

Cohen recently spoke with World Israel News.

Q: How do you describe the many different types of work that you do?

“I’ve come up with a phrase at this point — designer, educator and creativity instigator. It captures a lot of what I do. I’m always trying to look at ways to analyze the work that I do in education, tech and software entrepreneurship. I try to solve problems and design those solutions. My North Star is to always find ways to help others level up and build their skills.

“I was a creative director for a small company before shifting full time into education, and I was getting teacher evaluations from a series of courses that I taught at Fashion Institute in Los Angeles. I helped them develop skills and build really strong design capacity really quickly. It wasn’t a familiar experience for me to get that kind of feedback.

“No one’s ever happy. It was a new feeling for me to have that. Those three terms are the crossroad of the work I’m occupied with right now.”

Q: Where did the name ‘The Tech Rabbi’ come from?

“I was trying to come up with a personal brand that would be interesting and memorable. I’m really big in education, technology, tech conferences and the rabbi piece is like ‘Oh, hey, I’m a rabbi.’ It came out as an interesting brand name. The best way it was described to me was, ‘Not everyone is going to agree with The Tech Rabbi, but no one will ever forget.’

Q: How did you get started doing this work?

“I started going to professional development conferences in 2012. I realized I could share the ways I came up with to support teaching, learning and the creative ways to use technology. It took a while. I started doing some presentations and in 2014, I officially registered thetechrabbi.com. I was focused on that presentation role in my life, going to education conferences with a 99% non-Jewish audience.”

“The Jewish people I interact with always think I’m more traditional and work in a yeshiva in Brooklyn. I’m in a Jewish school part-time because I don’t do a lot of work in the Jewish education space, but I love working with Jewish kids and getting them to see Torah commitment in the world and in technology.

“Most of my work is in the non-Jewish space, so I’m always this fascinating figure for the non-Jewish world.”

Q: So are you the first Jew who people meet sometimes?

“It’s interesting because I’m the first Jew a non-Jewish — sometimes even Jewish — people meet. Because their confidence in their own Judaism isn’t as strong, they’ll latch onto me. I become almost this release where people become associated with me and feel Jewish. This happened to me many times. I spent a lot of time pre-pandemic in the Midwest. People are looking for ways to be supported.”

Q: How do you efficiently split your time between working in a yeshiva with social media and all of the other things you work on?

“I don’t know, it’s hard because of the work-life balance. I always try to find ways for these different things to sync together. The more they sync up, the bigger impact I can make around these singular focuses. I only do things that I’m passionate about and what people know me for.”

Q: What is your biggest key in helping people find their own inner creativity?

“It’s important because you touch on the essence of what creativity is. We look at creativity in the world as this thing we’re going to learn how to do. In reality, creativity is in an innate capacity that’s driven by curiosity and imagination. It’s driven by a desire to impact people in a positive way.

“I help educators with their own creativity so they have the confidence to help students they support reveal their own. It’s your mindset. It’s the way you grapple with failure, uncertainty and the unknown. You need to be OK with risk taking. Creativity can’t be scripted and the answer isn’t in the back of a book. It’s about finding ways to solve problems and reveal your own strength to do that. Creativity is the way you look at things and apply them, driven by problem solving and empathy.”

Q: How do you combine your love of Torah with your passion of giving financial advice?

“The Torah synergy for me helps me constantly look at myself. How can I take Torah and Chasidus [Hasidic philosophy] and ensure that I wedge it in the world around me? For my outward expression of that, it has to be done in a way that’s a little less obvious, mostly because I predominantly work in the non-Jewish space.

“For me to start giving a weekly parsha [Torah portion] blog — I could make a second account and put that out — it has to be done in a way where the fundamental approach of what God wants to have happen in the world, which is truth, honesty and kindness. Everyone can agree those are really great attributes. I’m constantly looking at ways I can bring that Torah approach in the world. I represent whatever level of the Jewish people that people see me representing. I don’t claim to represent myself as anything, but for better or worse, I am a representative. The non-Jewish audience embraces it. It’s not easy when I force it, but it’s easy when I am who I am.”

Q: What are your goals, both short and long term?

“Right now, I’m trying to launch a startup. For three years, I’ve been running a student incubator and accelerator at my high school. I realized I can do this and I can scale it at a much larger capacity. My co-founder and I are trying to launch it by the summer. That’s taking up a lot of time, and it’s a short-term action. But the long-term desire is I want to be part of creating a much larger movement that prepares young people in non-traditional means.

“You can’t look at the academic college track as the sole path to financial freedom. It’s not just about making money. If you made a trade school for YouTubers, people would flock to it. I want to create that disruption. Hopefully, I can do that and provide for my family. I want to wake up everyday and do this amazing work that I love.”