Archive for November, 2008


A Pause for Reflection in Memory of My Grandfather

November 30, 2008

For those of who who tune in here for my most recent thoughts on Jewish community, I hope you will forgive one post of personal reflection.  Seven days ago, my grandfather, Wilfred S. Cohen/Shalom ben Yosef HaKohen, was laid to rest in a small cemetery in  Rotterdam, New York.   Born in Brownsville, NY, my grandfather lived ninety-four years, sixty-eight of which he was married to my grandmother. He is survived by  her, four children, eight grandchildren,  four great-grandchildren, and countless memories, stories and pieces of wisdom.

He died in the same hospital in Schenectady, NY where I was born thirty-five years and one day prior, and his life, his love of family and his commitment to his community are examples for me and my children to follow all the days of our lives.  Even in celebrating a life well lived, it is is still difficult not to feel diminished by the loss of a family member and a friend. His life and his memory remind me that my community starts at home with my family, but hat it extends beyond d the door of my home as well.

Below is the hesped I delivered at his funeral.

A Hesped For My Grandfather
Wilfred S. Cohen/Shalom Ben Yosef HaKohen, Z”L
1914 – 2008
25 Cheshvan 5769 / November 23, 2008

At this time, and at this place, as family we feel both big and small. We feel big because we are reminded that as a family we are more than the sum of our parts, more than a collection of names and faces, but a community of individuals that span from east to west, from north to south.  We are more than our own small families of parents, children and grandchildren, we are also brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles and cousins too.  In this moment of remembrance of the life of our grandfather, we remember that we are part of a larger family as well, and that while a bit smaller today, our family is nevertheless big.

But individually, we feel small as well. We are diminished by the loss of a husband, a father a grandfather, a cousin and a friend. We are small in the face of a much larger understanding of life, and ultimately death.  We are dwarfed by the number of memories we all hold, the number of stories we share, the number of tales we tell.  In this moment of remembrance of Bill Cohen, we remember that while our family may be big, this passing of a man we love nevertheless makes us small.

In our home we sometimes play a game of big and small, in Hebrew  – gadol and katan. In the deepest biggest voice the girls say “GADOL” and in the sweetest smallest voice they say “katan” – it is a children’s game.

But today in this most adult of moments, as a grandson of Bill Cohen, I can’t help but think only gadol.  And when I think of my grandfather, it is hard to imagine that there could be a man who could better fit the term gadol.  He was big in our lives, big in his pride of his family, big in his opinions and big in his love.

As a Cohen, he also merited the name and recognition as a Kohen, a man of priestly status – and in our family he was truly the Kohen Gadol – the Big Cohen.

While thinking of our grandfather as the Kohen Gadol of our family, we cannot help but think more about the qualities in the man we loved and the soul we remember.  In biblical times, the Kohen Gadol was a man of special honor, of priestly nature and of service to his community.  He wore robes befitting a man of his status, and nothing of his attire was more brilliant than the breastplate, the Hoshen, on his chest.

In the days of his life, our grandfather also wore such a brilliant badge of honor that, in more ways than one, reflected the brilliance of his life and the illumination on his family.

It is written that the breastplate of the Kohen Gadol, which was made in accordance with very specific instructions, had four rows of gems, three gems in each row, making twelve different gems stones total.

Four rows, twelve gems.

Grandpa Bill and Grandma Fran had four children – four rows of gems in their lives. Laura, my father Jay, Marilyn and Bobbi – each a unique and precious gem. And each of those gems begot others, sons and daughter in-laws that were loved like they were and are their own children. Grandchildren and great-grandchildren were in those lines of gems, gems that Grandpa Bill wore proudly on his chest all the days of his life.

But the number 12 holds an important meaning as well, and held an important meaning to Grandpa. Eight Grandchildren and Four great-grandchildren – those gems were also twelve gems that illuminated the Hoshen of our Kohen Gadol.  Jen and David, Eric and Seth, Julie and Adam, Marissa and Michael, Matthew, Morgan, Danielle and Jordan. They were more than names to Grandpa Bill, they were the gems that he kept, along with Grandma Fran, closes to his heart.  Twelve gems on a breastplate of honor.

And how he kept them close.  Until our grandparents moved to Florida fulltime, there was the twice a year “trek of the Cohens”  –  a journey from North to South, visiting each of the children and grandchildren along the way.  The trip from Willsboro to Florida was more than just a trip, if was a journey of family, stopping to talk, to share, and to watch some CNN.  But even in remembering those trips, there was much more than just dinners and cable news. In fact there was always a different kind of CNN – the Cohen News Network, that stopped in each of our homes, reminding us of our links to one another, the stories of our families, and the events in the lives of those we loved. When our grandparents came on those trips they brought more than pies south and oranges north, they brought their love and their lessons. While they may have been passing through on their travels, in the travel of Grandpa’s life, his children and grandchildren weren’t drive-bys, they were permanent points of pride.

We can all remember so many memories, up at camp, on the boat, at the Point, in town, in Florida, in our homes and in our lives. We can remember countless stories of the penny arcades, of the northern New York towns, the Village Bazaar and the bizarreness of south Florida. And even if we can’t remember all the names of our second and third cousins, we remember the names of the people who made an impact on his life, Mr. Paine, the neighbors at the camp, the friends in Florida, so many names.

We remember what he told us. How he told us he was proud, proud of us, proud of one another.  He set an example to us the way he loved Grandma, they way he felt concern for his children, the way he was respected in the communities that he lived in, the way he respected those communities by always giving back and being for them a leader.

My brother Eric, rightly, describes him as a noble man, a caring man, a community man and a family man. But even more than that, to us he was all of that and then some. He was a true Cohen Gadol.

One final story, perhaps not familiar to many of us.   It happened on Wednesday, May 5, 1954.  At the time The Village Bazaar was not even a thought – our grandfather was the manager of Pearl’s in Keeseville. It was the last night of John Prescott’s term as president of the Keeseville Chamber of Commerce, and new elections were to be held. But it was not the most simple of elections as John Prescott, the outgoing President, was discouraged by the attendance and the overall state of affairs of the Chamber. There was some debate whether an election of the officers was even appropriate.  However, after discussion, the consensus was that those who were interested in the matters of the Chamber had been present or otherwise accounted for, and therefore the election was appropriate.  Bill Cohen was elected without a dissenting vote and he was empowered to appoint his own secretary.

So here we are today, and rather than warmth of that spring day, we feel the chill of the onset of winter. We are gathered not to elect, but to remember the president of our special chamber, our Cohen Gadol.  His optimism was correct and foretelling.  In his discretion, he has appointed each of us his secretary, to be a scribe of the memories of his life, of the stories of our days with him, of the hopes he had for all of us.  Like every man, he is laid to rest in his most simple of attire, however, we should not forget the way he wore the brilliant Hashon, with its four rows of gems, and its twelve gems of life, representing his love for all of us.

May his memory be a blessing…. a blessing that is gadol, not katan.


Memo to the Federation File: The New (Human) Capital Campaign

November 9, 2008

During the past few months, one can rarely avoid a discussion of the impact of the ongoing economic challenges facing many Americans.  Avoiding such conversations is even more rare in the hallways of nonprofit organizations that depend on the generosity of their donors to provide critical financial resources to address a variety of compelling needs.  These organizations that often struggle for funds even when times are good now find themselves in a time of dramatically increased need even while many of their supporters are more hesitant about their individual ability to give generously. Notwithstanding data that indicates that generosity does not diminish (and often increases) in times of great need, it is nevertheless clear that in these belt-tightening days that many people, when reconciling the numbers of diminishing 401(k) returns and increasing 501(c)(3) appeals, just can’t make the math work.

So these are long days and nights for fundraising campaigns – calls to donors are as much about friend-raising as they are fundraising, for just as there are many individuals who may offer a bit more financial help, there are those who reveal that they are in a bit more financial need.  And along with the greater demands to find financial resources to help those in that seek it, there will soon be challenges to be faced in ways that we haven faced domestically in perhaps generations. How our communities meet those challenges, and how we allocate the resources necessary to help overcome them will be defining questions for community leaders in the months and perhaps years ahead.

So it might seem odd that I would suggest that at this time of immense challenge that we focus on an immense opportunity to commence a new type of national Jewish communal campaign – a capital campaign of sorts, a human capital campaign.

Yes, we must continue and expand important financial appeals in our Jewish communities to serve local, national and overseas needs (we should not forget that the crippling effects of the global slowdown that impacts us at home has tremendous impact on the needs of vulnerable and at-need Jews in places like the former Soviet Union).  But we need to expect that for many individuals who are struggling to cope with their own personal financial challenges, engaging in acts of Jewish philanthropy may be an option that, for the time-being, must be left untaken.  Whether helping shore up their parents’ financial needs, struggling with their own limited ability to maintain synagogue memberships, day school fees or JCC dues, many Jews who would nonetheless like to remain engaged in the community may feel financially shut out.  In the face of these economic limitations, they may feel like what they have to offer the community is diminished, and therefore their engagement in the community should diminish as well.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. And the leaders of the organized Jewish community need to make sure that not only does the false perception of these individuals manifest themselves in our communities, but that we proactively take measures to seize the opportunity offered by those who want to find alternative ways to give back to their community.

Now is the time for us to engage in discussions with those who want to give time rather than money and capture their energies in ways that help us collectively face the challenges that confront us. Sure, many of our most vaunted professional leaders and long-time volunteers may be able to put the current challenges into perspective, but the emerging viewpoints and ideas of new volunteers and leadership will help us define pathways to future achievement.  Individuals who long invested in the community by writing checks may now find that being engaged in a volunteer leadership role is equally fulfilling. And then as economic times improve and they can more generously give once again, our communities will benefit from both time and money.

Therefore, I think right now is the time, an important time, to engage in a discussion of how we embark on the great Jewish human capital campaign.  A campaign with realizable goals locally and nationally for engaging new volunteers, and new volunteer leadership.  A campaign that does not diminish the value of giving financially to philanthropic endeavors, but one that reinforces the value of investing personal time in the organizations that pursue those endeavors.

Now this campaign would not be without its challenges.  Like any great effort that brings in new individuals to organizations and movements there are always questions of ability to integrate the new volunteers leaders into existing roles, to create new roles and opportunities for personal investment and to provide volunteers/leaders high quality experiences that reinforce their desire to give their time to the community.  These volunteers and leaders must be powerfully engaged, educated and empowered to effect change in our communities and help create new avenues of Jewish experience.  And they should have some fun.

Equal to the systemic challenges with respect to the new volunteers/leaders we need to anticipate challenges for our professionals. Many of our senior professional leadership have grown up in systems (most notably the federation system) that have not achieved much-needed and dramatic reengineering of core strategies related to volunteer engagement. Figuring out new ways to engage leaders and new ways to synthesize their strengths into existing organizations is no small task. And as many have realized, Jewish communal organizations are not necessarily bastions of adaptability – recruiting substantial numbers of new volunteers/leaders will require many organizations (and their professionals) to be responsive to the new ideas, approaches, and technologies – each which may be at odds with decades of organizational experience/tradition.

This human capital campaign needs to start at the bottom and at the top. We need new faces at our most basic committee levels in our local communities, and as I have suggested previously, we need new ideas at the top of our local and national organizations.  The human capital campaign is not narrowly focused or easily satisfied.  It requires fundamental changes in the way we recruit engaged Jews and the way we govern organizations that are led by them. We need to challenge old assumptions and embrace new visions. Even those visions that require resources we might not be able to collect in the coming days, months and perhaps even years. Because by encouraging and allowing those visions to take root, we will be harnessing the passions of visionaries who create them.  And when the financial resources are there to transform those visions into realities, the human capital campaign will infuse new life into these financial campaigns as well.

Yes, we face challenging times. And yes, in these challenging times we tend to monitor our campaigns closely – aspiring, stretching and achieving those goals we must achieve to address the needs we face. But lets not be too cautious lest we lose this opportunity to engage in a great new capital campaign  – a human capital campaign that seeks to benefit from the greatest resource of all – the hearts and minds of the Jewish people.