It wasn’t hard for us to spot the Cohens playing basketball in their Brays Oaks driveway. First we met Hayim Cohen, otherwise known as Dad, and then Avshalom, Avichai, Yehuda, Shmariyahu, Simcha, Yissachar, Nachman, Elimelech, and Pasach—nine sons, ranging in age from 5 to 18, all adopted from foster care and, in case their yarmulkes and long side braids don’t give it away, all Hasidic Jews.
Jewish tradition encourages followers to take care of widows and orphans, which is why Cohen, now 35, became a licensed foster parent in his early twenties. The first time a social worker laid out the numbers, he was shocked—tens of thousands of children in the Texas system alone, many of them unfairly stigmatized as “broken” or somehow undesirable. In 2008, when a pair of orthodox Jewish children entered the system—“a minority within a minority within a minority,” he explains—Cohen felt he had no choice. He took in his first two sons at 26.
For a moment he thought that was that, at least before social workers started calling him about more Jewish boys entering the system. “I became the go-to,” he says, and the adoption cycle repeated itself with another son, then a pair of sons, then another son, and then, last year, a group of three more.
Perhaps it goes without saying, but Cohen never planned to be a single father to nine. He grew up living an itinerant life as the son of a rabbi, landing in West Texas as an adult. There he got into real estate as the landlord for a portfolio of rental homes in what’s become the epicenter of the shale-fracking boom. The income takes care of the bills, allowing Cohen to homeschool his sons. “I made a good investment,” he says proudly from his supersized dining table for 12 at his home in Houston, where he moved seven years ago to raise the boys in a thriving Jewish community.
Still, religion presents an interesting challenge. All ten Cohens were born into the faith, but the children arrived from a smattering of Jewish traditions, with a variety of rituals. “For me, I feel like we’ve formed our own new religion,” Cohen says. “We accommodate all of the customs every Sabbath—it’s absolutely beautiful.”
The Cohens have become a known quantity at the local Sam’s Club, where they rarely step outside with fewer than four huge carts carrying the groceries that fill their industrially equipped kosher kitchen each month. When it comes time for doctors’ appointments, the office usually just shuts down a wing, for efficiency’s sake. Cohen buys the warranty on every bike, toy, and piece of electronics; with nine rowdy boys, it comes in handy.
If this sounds a lot like the everyday minutiae of any family, that’s because it is. Cohen maintains an active blog, YouTube channel, and Facebook page with regular updates of the family’s outings to Space Center Houston or Battleship Texas; one post brags about their Boy Scout troop’s second-place victory at a first-aid competition. The transparency, Cohen explains, serves a distinct purpose: “We want people to see that you can be a foster kid turned adoptive child and be normal, and live a normal life. Further than that, I want people to see that you can be a single Hasidic Jew and adopt children.”
We tour the boys’ immaculately kept bedrooms, decked out with cartoon Minions and plush characters from Adventure Time. Yissachar, the youngest, begs Cohen to break out his favorite inflatable bounce house, while Shmariyahu, a budding teenage scientist, plunks down a medical dictionary before gleefully shooting off bits of medical trivia. The rest of the boys gather in the living room, waiting for permission to go play at the park. They are, by all appearances, happy.
Amid this sudden bout of organized chaos, we ask the inevitable question: Does Cohen have the will—or the energy—to adopt again? His answer isn’t simple. For one, he hopes to marry soon, and to father children of his own. And then, his single-story home is bursting at the seams with bunk beds and kid clutter. Yet if the phone call comes again…
“Sometimes you have to just do it, if you know you can do it,” he says. “If you know there’s the realm of possibility, why not? I’ll say that again: Why not?”