Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

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The Election 2012 Playbook: Lessons for the Jewish Community

November 5, 2012

Like most politically-attuned Americans, I have been consumed by the endgame of the 2012 US presidential election, finding myself absorbing every tidbit of news, polls and prognostications with increasing focus (and anxiety) as the clock ticks down to Election Day. In the world of 24/7 news media, blogs and tweets, my only daily “must read” is the Politico Playbook, written by the indefatigable Mike Allen.  As he has counted down to the election, Allen’s email provides essential insight into the state of play of the Obama/Romney campaigns. More than that, however, he also frames insights that are directly applicable to state of play of contemporary Jewish community engagement.

In a recent Playbook (you can read it here), Allen did an excellent job of succinctly explaining the different strategies the Obama campaign and the Romney campaign have deployed during this election (the former being more of a retail strategy, and the latter being a wholesale strategy).  The Obama campaign has placed enormous emphasis on a field operation that helps “get out the vote” by establishing an expansive network of field offices, voter-mobilization campaigns and community-organizing networks, while the Romney campaign has continued to focus on the key messages and themes that will inspire the number of voters needed to tip the campaign in his favor.

In supporting his analysis, Allen quotes an Obama campaign official as follows:

“I view campaigns as a list-building exercise, and there’s three ways that you can build your list: You can do that by registering new voters who support the President. You can persuade undecided voters to support the President. Or you can increase turnout with your existing list of supporters. Ultimately, that’s all we’re doing here.  We’re going to be spending lots and lots of money doing those three very simple things.”

 As I read that paragraph over and over again, the lights came on. Isn’t the Obama campaign official articulating the same vision of what we need in the Jewish community? Of course building community is more than just a list-building exercise, but consider the corollaries:

  • You can engage Jewish young adults who might be inclined to participate in the Jewish community but have yet to be truly invited to participate.
  • You can persuade “undecided” (or unengaged) Jews to participate in the Jewish community.
  • You can increase the “turnout” list of currently engaged Jewish community members.

That essentially summarizes the retail approach to building Jewish community that many of our organizations and initiatives are built to execute. From Taglit/Birthright Israel (engaging new community members), to creating compelling invitations and opportunities for programming (convince the undecided and increase turnout), most of our organizational efforts focus on a “get out the vote” campaign to entice Jews of all ages into various elements of community engagement. It is a strategy that has its strengths, but also its limitations. Creating a successful field operation for engagement requires a substantial investment in network-building infrastructure, even with the knowledge that unpredictable elements (such as hurricanes) can dramatically impact the efficacy of a well-designed retail strategy.

Which is why the Romney strategy, one that focuses less on field operations and more on voter motivations, is also vital.  If individuals are properly motivated by big themes and ideas, then even when the field operation is limited, voters will respond to the “call to action” in a meaningful way. Whether it is the call to change the status quo, or the appeal to act on one’s values, the power of the “big message” can also activate the passion of individuals to engage in community experiences and activism. This is true in the Jewish community as well; no matter how substantial the retail engagement strategy, if the messaging regarding the Jewish community is not inviting, compelling, and relevant, individuals will not “vote with their feet” and participate in community experiences.  Rather, they will elect to stay home, refuse to be counted, and ultimately become disenfranchised in the process.

So in many ways, the 2012 election encapsulates the alternatives (and necessities) of creating successful campaigns and community engagement strategies.  We can compare different approaches including retail versus wholesale and field organization versus big messaging. The winning formula probably is somewhere in the middle. It takes both strategies to win in politics, as well as to build our local and global Jewish community.  On the morning of November 7, we will know which presidential campaign strategy succeeded; one will win, and one will lose.  In our community, we can’t afford to lose – so what type of campaign will we pursue?  Much more than an election hangs in the balance.

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Philanthropic Horizons and the Future of the Jewish Funders Network

September 28, 2010

If you spend enough time around philanthropists you quickly realize that their diversity of passion is equaled by their diversity in motivation. That is, they each have a different catalyst for their philanthropic activity – for some it is the result of family, for others is it is the result of personal experience. For many philanthropists it is the friend they found that activated their philanthropic impulse and for an equal number it is their internal value system that finally found an avenue of expression. Whatever the case, each philanthropist is the lead character in their own charitable narrative – a story for which they are often the author and the editor.

In the context of the broader philanthropic narrative, the Jewish Funders Network (JFN) is an interesting story. An organization that is dedicated to “advancing the quality and growth of Jewish philanthropy,” it serves a role as a meeting place of Jewish philanthropists to gather, engage one another and learn from and with peers; a place where these diverse charitable authors can hone their craft. And in a world where philanthropic activity has matured in professionalism, complexity and scale, JFN has developed into an organization that provides resources and important support to the funders who are, in turn, providing important support to our communities. In sum, at a time where funders are grappling with the new language of philanthropy, JFN plays an important role helping those individuals convert that language into impact.

Nonetheless, in light of Mark Charendoff stepping down as the president of JFN at the end of 2010 and in anticipation of the naming of his successor, it is fair to wonder what the future of JFN holds. As it looks to write the next chapter of its story, JFN’s leadership needs to look beyond the present and boldly envision the future of a changing JFN in a changing Jewish world. With that in mind, here are four suggestions for the JFN leadership as they write the script for the post-Charendoff era:

  1. Establish bold philanthropic horizons. Yes, supporting the needs of individual funders through education and services must remain an important part of JFN, but to make an indelible impact on the size and impact of Jewish philanthropy, JFN must help the broader Jewish philanthropic community set goals that inspire action. If we were to envision our optimal Jewish philanthropic landscape ten years from now, what would it look like? How many philanthropists would be active and what would their activity in the Jewish world look like? These are questions JFN needs to boldly ask and boldly answer. If JFN leaderships sets demanding goals, inspires increased activity and drives results that have a transformative impact on the size and scale of global Jewish philanthropy, it can help reset the Jewish philanthropic horizon for decades to come.
  2. Establish and communicate clear organizational priorities. JFN has numerous great initiatives, but perhaps the number of these initiatives and the apparent lack of prioritization is limiting JFN’s ability communicate its organizational impact. For JFN to remain relevant and make an even greater impact on the future of Jewish philanthropy it needs to develop precise priorities for the constituencies it seeks to serve. It must communicate those priorities and be willing to be evaluated as to its success in achieving its goals. Certainly JFN does several things well, but that isn’t enough. It needs to do things exceptionally well, and sometimes that means focusing on fewer issues, with great intensity and probability of measurable success.
  3. Reinforce the important role of Jewish women as Jewish funders. Despite women being some of the most capable and impactful Jewish professionals in funding and grantee organizations, we still have a paucity of women leading Jewish funding organizations. While JFN is not an advocacy organization, it should take a more vocal role (as an organization and as a collection of members) in advocating positive changes in a Jewish philanthropic environment where far too few women lead major Jewish funding organizations. JFN should boldly and unequivocally set a horizon for increased numbers of Jewish women in professional funding leadership roles, and actively challenge our broader community to meet measurable benchmarks in achieving that goal (perhaps even setting the best example by hiring a woman as the next president of JFN).
  4. Help develop a Jewish Grantees Network. Creating a network of Jewish funders has paid substantial dividends for our community, both in the amount of resources that are deployed and the quality manner in which it is done. JFN has created opportunities for collaboration (such as matching grants) that helps set a standard for philanthropic excellence. But the truth is, if our funder network is not met with an equally skilled grantee community, frustration and miscommunication will continue to ensue. The Jewish community is long overdue for an organization that helps convene Jewish organizations of all types for the purpose of skill development, idea exchange and the opportunity of collaboration. With more and more social entrepreneurs entering the field and more Jewish organizations facing the same challenges of similar funding challenges, the need for a more structured support network is evident. While running such a network/association is outside the mission of JFN, being a catalyst of the creation of such network is not.

So there you have it – four suggestions for the leadership of JFN to consider as it writes its next chapter of its organization’s history. Each suggestion points to what most funders (especially those that are members of JFN) inherently understand – an organization’s mission must be bold enough, the impact must be measurable enough and the horizon must be bright enough to merit the investment of time and resources of its leadership and members. The same is true for JFN, and if the leadership makes the right decisions, the future of JFN will be anything but a short story.

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Incrementalism and the Need for a New Jewish Philanthropic Narrative

August 9, 2010

People need a sacred narrative. They must have a sense of larger purpose, in one form or another, however intellectualized.
E.O. Wilson, American biologist

Although the Jewish people are often described as a people of the book, perhaps the “people of the narrative” might be a more apt description. Yes, the Torah is a rich and inspiring statement on Jewish faith, law and identity, but for most Jews the Torah is accessible largely as a narrative. Equally, the post-biblical history of the Jewish people is a tapestry of narratives, spanning the ages, geographies, challenges and triumphs in a series of interconnected chapters and verses. Indeed, the endurance of the Jewish people is a testament to the narrative it has created for itself, and the complexity of that narrative is a testament to the endurance of the Jewish people.

If the narrative of our history is what helps sustain us, what about the narrative of the present? Perhaps it is impossible to ever establish a broader narrative of contemporary times when one is in the midst of its occurrence – that is the role of historians. However, the lack of a contemporary narrative that inspires faith and action can have catastrophic effects on the ability of a people to encounter the challenges of their present and the possibilities of the future. Without this broader narrative we have a tendency to rely on incrementalisim – the thought that small steps and accretive efforts will be enough to move people forward. We believe, often incorrectly, that small successes bide time for eventual transformative change; that in the world of 140 character communication, the story of our success in achieving our goals will slowly, but surely, tell itself.

Nowhere does this seem more prevalent than in the Jewish philanthropic world. The last century of Jewish life has been filled with the grand narratives of Jewish need – including the founding and development of the State of Israel, the initial waves of olim, the fight for Soviet Jewry, and the aliyah of Falush Mura. In the Diaspora our narratives have centered on the care of individuals, such as needs of survivors of the Holocaust, and the core of our communities, such as capital campaigns and endowments. But in 2010 those narratives have given way to incremental efforts observed from ever increasingly narrower vantages. In our desire to see ‘indicators of success’ and to achieve ‘outcomes,’ we have lost the majesty and motivation provided by larger, more inspiring narratives. Our efforts of strengthening the Jewish people seem to rely more and more on achieving quantitative measurements in the absence of a broader and contextualized effort.

Our communal organizations struggle and, candidly, have yet to succeed in meeting the challenge of defining a new philanthropic narrative. No doubt we have plenty of strategic visions, missions and plans, but they are generally organization-centric and inspiring only to a select base of activists. But developing five- and ten-point action plans and strategic initiatives is not a substitute for the development and communication of a bold story of our future – a future that is achievable if we all play our parts in our own unique way. As the Jewish Federations of North America, the Jewish Agency, and other large institutions are realizing, the call for collective action will fall on deaf ears if those ears are not first awakened by a compelling rationale, an inspiring narrative, and an accessible plan of action that provides vision and motivation for involvement.

Yes, we are making incremental progress. Yes we are achieving outcomes. But to what end? To justify our requests for increased contributions? To achieve the goals of existing funders? At its core, is the purpose of our community effort to make incremental change in order to meet arbitrary benchmarks, or are our efforts part of a story bigger than ourselves? These questions are vital and require vital thinking.

Make no mistake, there is a role for incrementalism – it helps build consensus and hedges risk. But the greater truth of the matter is that in contemporary Jewish life, consensus is harder to find and risk is abundant. We are past the need for only small steps; we need the bold visions and narratives that will radically amaze the Jewish people of the possibilities of their future. The story of our future, while unpredictable, is not indescribable. So long as we find leaders that can craft the narrative we so desperately require, we can meet the challenges of today to realize the potential of tomorrow…

… a tomorrow that is more than just one incremental day away.

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The Great Reset: The Jewish Agency and the Pursuit of an ‘Exemplary Society’

June 30, 2010
    “We once were a people without a home; will we become a home without a people?”

This was the question I asked last week when addressing the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency as part of the presentation of the Agency’s new strategic plan. A simple question, but one that embodies the countless fears we all share regarding the future of the global Jewish family. In the face of existential challenges on all fronts relating to the physical security of the State of Israel, we must nonetheless face a question that we can ask only to ourselves – will our failure to remain connected to one another in the pursuit of our common ideals be the ultimate risk to the survival of the Jewish people?

In his recent book, The Great Reset, Richard Florida writes about the impact of highly stressed moments in economic cycles, and how they ‘reset’ fundamental aspects of society. Ranging from aspects of consumption, transportation, communication and personal geographic, Florida argues that Great Resets are fundamental transformations in the way we live in the present and set in motion the trends that will impact our lives for decades to come. Understood through a blend of Schumpeterian ‘creative destruction’, Marxian philosophy and capitalist adaptability, Great Resets bring about the destruction and fundamental reconstitution of institutions and ideas, requiring us to change our perspectives in response to the change world around us.

Similar to our current economic circumstances, we are at a highly stressed moment in the history of the Jewish people. We face threats from outside, but equally, we are facing threats from within. As our history has changed, so have we changed the way we engage with one another as individualism has reshaped our sense of the collective and the realization of our dream of a home of our own has redefined what it means to be in the Diaspora. Just as significant, we have slowly begun to question whether our Jewish values are better contextualized in terms of universalism rather than expressions of Jewish idealism and Zionism. Now, at this time in our history, we are facing the a realization that our encounter with modernity, while leading to much success, has also lead us to great crisis – a crisis that calls for a Great Reset.

Last week, in response to many of the considerations described above, the Jewish Agency adopted a new strategic plan, a plan that is nothing short of a great reset of the role of the Jewish Agency in Israel and in the future of the Jewish People. As a member of the strategic planning committee of the Agency, I know firsthand how deliberate and thoughtful its leadership was in crafting this plan, and I also know how cautiously and emotionally elements of the plan were considered and approved. This is just a first step in what will be a complicated and, in many ways painful process of resetting the Agency. Although to many the plan seems to be to vague, and perhaps the redefined goals of the Agency seem too aspirational, make no mistake, this is the beginning of a process that will fundamentally and concretely change the way the Agency operates within Israel and the broader Jewish world. It is not a minor shift; it is a fundamental transformation of the Agency for a fundamentally different era of Jewish life.

However, even with high confidence that the plan is the right plan, I know and share many questions that people have asked regarding its implementation. Among those many questions are four that distinguish themselves as key to assessing the ability of the Agency to be successful in its Great Reset. These questions must be answered by not only the leadership of the Jewish Agency, but also by each of us as stakeholders in the broader Jewish enterprise.

1. Are the strategies to be pursued by the Agency, especially with respect to Jewish identity in the Diaspora, the proper strategies for what many people view as an organization that is a relic of political Zionism? The truth is, this is not the first time that a Zionist organization has shifted tactics to respond to the crisis of Jewish identity. In the 1906 the Third All-Russian Zionist Conference in Helsinki (Helsingfors), responding the Russian pogroms and the upheavals in the Zionist movement, also addressed the role of Zionism in addressing the needs of the Jewish people in the Diaspora. In their conference memorandum they wrote, “[t]o be sure, our goal remains the same, only our tactics have changed. We now understand that only an organized, unified Jewry is capable of mobilizing the vast material and spiritual resources needed to realize our objectives.” Further, they wrote,” Zionism must address all aspects of Jewish life and respond to all issues besetting Jewry.”

With this historical context in mind, the Jewish Agency’s new plan must also meet the shifting requirements of the Zionist endeavor. In 2010, we do not face physical pogroms, but the equally dangerous pogroms of propaganda that attempt to deligitimize the Jewish State and its people. In response to these attacks, we must recognize that proper effort must be made to inspire Jewish leadership and their followers, to connect those Jewish with one another and Israel, and to empower those in Israel to make Israeli society stronger. The ultimate goal, the strengthening of the state through Aliyah and the pursuit of the Zionist idea is reinforced by these strategies, not diminished. In the Great Reset of the Jewish Agency, strategies must change even as the goal of an exemplary society embodied by a Jewish State remains the same.

2. Is the Jewish Agency capable of changing its operations and functioning in a way that responds to its changing strategies? There is no question regarding one thing, the Jewish Agency has a reputation of being a bloated, overstaffed and dysfunctional organization, rife with redundancies and roadblocks. The perception, in as much as it reflects reality, must be changed if the Agency is to successfully navigate its Great Reset. This must be one of the central areas of focus of the Agency leadership, because even if its strategies are correct, if its leadership fails to redesign the Agency’s operations so that they are efficient, cost-effective and excellent, the Great Reset will fail. Budgets must be precise and grounded in realizable fundraising goals, and the Agency must adopt a system of ongoing change management within the Agency. To help build an exemplary society, we must demand of the Agency to be exemplary organization capable of achieving is goals in an excellent manner.

3. Can the Jewish Agency establish and maintain the critical partnerships it needs to be successful in achieving its goals under the new plan? This is a question that cannot be answered only by the Agency, but also by all of us. There is no doubt that there are existing partnerships that are key to the funding of the Agency, the government of Israel, Keren Hayesod/UIA, the Jewish Federations of North America, and the International Fellowship of Christian and Jews, but the success of the Agency’s Great Reset will depend on not just those relationships, but also the establishment of new partnerships with new service delivery partners, thought leaders and funders. The Agency must be open to establishing partnerships in ways that respond to needs of the partners not just needs of the Agency. Equally, however, those partners must be open to working with a new Jewish Agency, one that has reset both its function and its form. If potential partners refuse to engage in the future of the Agency because the past of the Agency, opportunities will be missed and outcomes will not be realized. If the Agency is resetting its approach, perhaps all of us can reset our own attitudes and optimism to the Agency’s future.

4. Will the Jewish Agency be able to energize and leverage existing volunteer leadership while also recruiting new generations of leaders and voluntary stakeholders? Having been involved in numerous Jewish organizations and understanding their somewhat unique organizational attributes, even I am confused by the complexity of Agency governance. The truth of the matter is that as part of the Great Reset, the governance of the Agency must be revisited on a substantial and dramatic scale. All of the constituencies must remain represented, but the size and substance of the governance bodies must be redesigned to match the new purpose and structure of the Agency. While the Agency must also remain a substantial nexus with Israel with respect to the conduct of its operations and governance, it must make better use of technology to convene its leaders, as well as provide opportunities for governance to meet, outside of Israel. But most of all, the Agency needs to continue to recruit and inspire new leadership (not just young new leadership) to bring new ideas and energy into the governance structure. Just as one of the key strategies of the Agency is to empower and energize social activism in Israel, it must empower Israelis (and Jews in the Diaspora) to make vital leadership investments in the Agency.

These four questions yield no easy answers, just as the challenges of our times require more than simple solutions. The Great Reset is a necessity, but it is also a gamble – a gamble that we can transform an organization that built a state into an one that can build a stronger nation; because while our land may anchor us to our past, it is our actions that propel us toward our collective aspirations of a Jewish state with an exemplary society. Accordingly, our ability to take those necessary actions give rise to one final concern that I did not voice last week, but have been thinking of since – we are a people with a long and storied past; will we remain a people with a future?

If the Great Reset of the Jewish Agency works, than the answer will be a resounding YES.

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(Jewish) Community Organizing: Lessons from the Obama Campaign

December 12, 2008

Regardless of one’s political affiliation, the recent election of Barack Obama as the forty-fourth president of the United States is a momentous event to consider. In a time of dramatic concern by so many, the Obama campaign has given an equal number of people in the world a moment of radical amazement.  There are certainly many lessons to be learned with respect to the Obama campaign in the political context, but the strategies and tactics deployed by the Obama campaign also hold numerous lessons of how we can better organize our Jewish communities.

1.    Positive messages create positive results.  Certainly in 2008 there were numerous negative topics to be discussed, including a war in the Middle East, and a troubled economy at home.  But Obama, while voicing concern about those several topics, nevertheless focused on a message of hope and change. So too must our Jewish community focus on positive messages.  While so much of our Jewish message is framed in the context of “never again,” too little of it is framed in the context of “Yes we can.”  True, there are great challenges facing our community – slowing affiliation, a nuclear Iran and Jewish apathy.  But much is going right as well – and we need a positive message if we expect people to join a positive Jewish campaign for change.

2.    Small contributions count as much as big ones.  Much has been made of the Obama campaign’s record-shattering fundraising.  But what has been remarkable about that effort is how many of the contributors were first-time political contributors and how many made small, but repeated, contributions. Also remarkable was the way Obama’s campaign tapped into the financial power of the netroots community.  Our Jewish community would be wise to quickly learn these fundraising lessons and apply them to our own efforts.  We are missing a tremendous opportunity to engage community members philanthropically in new and different ways – ways successfully deployed by the Obama campaign.

3.    Investment in field operations and social networks matter.   The Obama campaign redefined the power of the ground game in the recent election. Whereas Hillary Clinton focused on the big states with large primaries, Obama also focused on the states that had caucuses, understanding the power of small collections of passionate individuals. By engaging in places big and small, Obama created a network that engaged voters where they were in ways they wanted to be engaged, where in person or online. Sounds like something we would be wise to do with American Jews – meeting Jews where they are, and leveraging emerging social technologies to make those meetings happen.  We need to improve our Jewish ground game, before that game becomes too difficult to win.

4.    Agents of change still need voices of experience. Obama knew that one of his greatest weaknesses was the perception of his inexperience. So what did he do to counter that criticism? He found one of the most experienced senators to serve as his running mate. Rather than fear the influence of a more experienced leader, Obama embraced it. We should apply the same lessons in our Jewish communities.  While we need to embrace the fresh ideas that come from inexperienced Jewish innovators, we need to make sure those innovators embrace the experience and wisdom of our more seasoned leaders.

5.    Words matter. Perhaps the one critical mistake of the Obama campaign was when he commented that voters in Pennsylvania were bitter and cling to their guns and religion.  The Obama campaign credits that moment as a defining one in the campaign – after that episode Obama took a greater role in the campaign and worked to more carefully craft his message.  The care we need to use in choosing words in the Jewish community is no less important. When we refer to the “problem” of intermarriage we would be wiser to describe it as a “challenge.” Just like voters don’t like to be considered bitter, spouses don’t like to consider their marriages problems. If we want to be successful in our campaign for the engagement of more Jews, we should mind our words carefully.

6.    Create multiple paths to success.  Early in the campaign the Obama campaign said they were going to create multiple paths victory, including campaigning in states long ceded to the Republicans. And that is exactly what they did, so that on election night there were multiple ways for the electoral votes to add up in Obama’s favor. If we are wise, the Jewish community will learn from this experience and also focus on strengthening multiple paths to engagement.  If we want the numbers to add up, we need to create new and novel ways of Jewish engagement.

7.   Embrace the complexities of identity.  Obama has a complex racial background, one he embraced and transcended during the campaign. The Jewish people also have a complex background, filled with nuanced and conflicting identities.  Rather than getting mired in identity conflicts, like Obama we need to find common threads that help us transcend our individual insecurities about our identity.  Jewish identity has become a word we struggle to define and often endeavor to avoid. We should embrace the complexities of Jewish identity and perhaps we may find that there will be many more of us to embrace.

8.    Believe.  Obama believed he could win the presidency, and defying all expectations, he did.  People believed in his potential to effect change because it encouraged a belief that change could occur. Perhaps no greater lesson to be learned the Jewish community is the power of belief – belief in one another and belief in our collective ability to make our Jewish community stronger.

So there you have it, eight lessons from the ’08 Obama campaign. Even with these lessons in hand, it is fair to wonder if can we change the way our Jewish community engage individuals with the same level of success the Obama campaign achieved.  The parallels are remarkable – just like the current state of our nation, the current state of American Jewry gives us much for concern, but much more for pride. And while even the greatest challenges may still lie ahead of us, the strength of our Jewish past and the resilience of our Jewish spirit give us much to aspire for our collective Jewish future.

As a Jewish people, can we too achieve our goals?  The answer must be no different that the one boldly spoken by our new president on a clear, and clearly victorious night  – yes we can.

And we must.

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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.

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Opinion in the Forward on Enabling Jewish Professionals

August 29, 2008

In this week’s Jewish Daily Forward there is an opinion piece I wrote about the state of Jewish professionals and what we need to do to encourage them to dream big and believe in their ability to effect change.

The opinion piece can be found here.

In reading week’s Torah parsha Re’eh, we recall how Moses directs the Israelites that if there are needy among them, the Israelites should not harden their hearts and close their hands from helping their needy brothers. And coupled with that directive, Moses also reminds the people that there will always be needy among them.

Jewish professionals embody the fulfillment of Moses’ instructions – they maintain an open hand and a tender heart, and are worthy of not only our encouragement, but also our praise and thanks. While we may always have needy among us – whatever those needs maybe – we should pray that we always have inspired and caring professionals to help the needy, and make our community stronger.

Shabbat Shalom.