For Jeffrey L. Cohen and his family, there are not one, not two, but three new year's celebrations each year. There's Rosh Hashanah, Dec. 31, and-of course-the Jewish United Fund (JUF) annual Campaign close in January.
The Campaign close is indeed a celebration for Cohen. After all, Cohen-the senior vice president of Financial Resource Development for JUF-has spent his career helping to raise a whopping $2 billion for people in need in Chicago, Israel, and worldwide for now and into the future.
Among his many contributions, Cohen, along with other JUF lay and professional leaders, was instrumental in creating the JUF Centennial Campaign, which has raised $650 million to date, as well as the JUF Snowbirds events, where 28 percent of annual JUF gifts originate.
After 34 years at JUF, Cohen will make aliyah (immigrate to Israel) in the spring with his wife, Zenia Cohen, to join many of their children and grandchildren who live there. But Cohen is the first to say that this isn't a retirement. He plans to continue his passion of working on behalf of the Jewish people through JUF for a long time to come.
In October, the Cohens were honored at a Federation reception. "Jeffrey is in perpetual motion on behalf of the Jewish people," said Dr. Steven B. Nasatir, president of JUF/JF, and a dear friend and colleague to Cohen. "…Jeffrey is a builder. He's a builder of a wonderful family, a builder of our community, a builder of this Jewish United Fund, and of course now he is building up the land of Israel."
JUF News recently sat down with Cohen to discuss his career, his family, and the move on up to Israel.
JUF News: What do you love about your work-after three decades here?
Jeffrey L. Cohen: I can honestly say I cannot remember a day I didn't come to work happy. One of the greatest feelings I ever had was at my middle daughter Arica's graduation from Ida Crown Jewish Academy, where they brought up a girl who spoke in Russian and then in English and Hebrew. She came here through Operation Exodus, and I realized that her being here was because we were doing what we needed to do here at JUF…It's not about the money we raise. It's about how much money we give out. It's about the help that we give out, whether it's seeing people in Rogers Park or Northbrook or Kyiv who are waiting for our food packages. It's knowing that at the end of the day what I'm doing has brought life and happiness to lots of strangers that I'll never know or meet, and knowing that I made a difference in the world.
What was JUF like back in 1979 when you started?
In 1979, the Campaign ended a little over $30 million. We had one desktop copier. Telephones were operator-controlled, so they only worked from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and there was no voicemail. At my first meeting of the paper division of the JUF Trades department, there was a discussion of whether to start inviting wives to the division dinners because the husbands worried the spouses would curtail the booze and cigars and would push for increased giving.
Tell me about your childhood growing up in Chicago.
I give all the credit to my mother. My father died when I was 5 and my brother was 10, and my mother was a young widow at age 36 at the time. My mother's friends had a great influence on making things easier for my mother and made it easier for us to get a better Jewish education.
You've been on JUF missions to so many places, including Israel many times. Where are some of the places you've traveled and what were some of
Kyiv, Moscow, Rome, Morocco, Tunisia, Ethiopia, Paris, Romania, Cuba, Poland, and Israel almost 100 times. The kinds of missions that stand out the most are the Prime Minister's Missions, as well as the re-creation of the Rabbinic Missions with Rabbi Yehiel E. Poupko. The relationships with the rabbinate in Chicago is just so different than any other community. Then there was the JUF Centennial Mission in 2000, when we were able to take two planes full of people-22 buses-from Chicago to Israel.
What do you love about your partner in crime, your wife of 42 years, Zenia?
I met Zenia on the first day of high school. We knew each other's parents, but didn't know each other. Zenia is unbelievable-she couldn't be more perfect. As I started this job, she really took hold of it. Her degree is in education and she's taught for the last 13 years at Hillel Torah…Once she meets someone, she is a friend to them. As I took on this job, it really became a family job.
And speaking of family, you have a big one. How did you characterize the home that your children grew up in?
Our home was Shabbos, holidays, and family. We have three grown children, two in Israel and one in Chicago. We also have 13 grandchildren-nine girls and four boys. I call it "a league of my own."
Are you excited to make aliyah?
Yes. When I'm in Israel I'm home…the kids followed our Zionist dreams and now we're completing it.
Does anyone you helped at JUF stand out in your mind after all these years?
More than 20 years ago, I used to see an old woman in a disheveled housecoat come in to talk to my predecessor, Joel Shimsky. I later found out she had never married and worked at a plant of some sort during the war and bought war bonds. She'd come in with her transfer and take out $20,000 in cash. She would say, "Here, this is for the JUF." When Joel died, she would come into my office and do the same thing. She finally told me her name was Dorothy. [Over time], she would give us more and more money and bonds. I finally once got her to let me drive her home. She lived in Berwyn in a horrible basement of someone's apartment. Eventually she ran out of money and got sick. Because of what she had done all those years, we knew it was time to take care of her and she went to live at (what is now) CJE SeniorLife's Lieberman Center, and later passed away. She was one individual who was out there that needed to know that everything she had would go to the