New Hillel Executive Director looks to build ‘the future of Jewish Chicago’

Instead of creating a Jewish “home away from home” for students, Charles Cohen, Metro Chicago Hillel’s new Executive Director, wants to empower Jewish students to create a new sense of home here in Chicago by becoming active members of the Chicago Jewish community through Hillel.

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Instead of creating a Jewish "home away from home" for students, Charles Cohen, Metro Chicago Hillel's new Executive Director, wants to empower Jewish students to create a new sense of home here in Chicago by becoming active members of the Chicago Jewish community through Hillel.

"[Metro Chicago Hillel] students aren't coming here for four years or six years and then going back to where they came from, or moving on to New York or Boston or L.A.,"  Cohen said. "Most of these students are sticking around. They're Chicagoans. They're going to stay and raise their families here. This is an opportunity to work with students in a setting that really helps build the future of Jewish Chicago."

Cohen began his new position in August. Cohen comes to Chicago from Florida, where he worked as the executive director of the Friedman Commission for Jewish Education. Previously, Cohen held positions at Boston's Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education and at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.

While Cohen was raised in Milwaukee, he is no stranger to Chicago - Cohen is an alumnus of Ida Crown Jewish Academy in West Rogers Park.

Cohen completed his undergraduate degree at Yeshiva University in New York. Though the Modern Orthodox-affiliated university doesn't have a Hillel on campus, Cohen often found himself eating and hanging out at Hillel when visiting friends at New York University and Columbia University. When Cohen entered Boston University's law school, Hillel became a more central part of his life.

"My first day of law school was the first time I was in a classroom with non-Jewish people," Cohen said. "The experience of having a Hillel, having a place to go where it was familiar and comfortable, that was a relief, especially in law school, where things are crazy and stressful. It was just students hanging out and having community together."

Charles' combination of experiences, intelligence, genuine warmth, and quick wit prompted the search committee to unanimously endorse him as the new executive director, concluding that he is the ideal candidate to serve the Metro Chicago Hillel community, according to a statement released by the organization.

"Because Metro Chicago Hillel serves 10 campuses, we prioritized management, leadership, fundraising, and board experience over prior Hillel employment," said John Lowenstein, JUF's Vice President of Campus Affairs. "Charles has an extensive background working for Jewish communal organizations and joins a very experienced and competent staff of Hillel professionals. The future possibilities of Metro Chicago Hillel are only restrained by our own creativity and resources as we continue to expand our reach and depth on campuses."

This coming year, Cohen hopes to build personal relationships with students and empower them to build strong campus Jewish communities through volunteering, learning, and leadership opportunities. Metro Chicago Hillel will have 15 student interns working on everything from engagement to Israel advocacy.

"We want students to feel like this is something they can build together," Cohen said. "We want to make sure we are bringing more people in the door and getting them involved on a more regular basis. I'm hopeful we will be able to see the impact of our work for years to come, as students go on and become volunteers, as they become part of the community ecosystem. It starts here."

Metro Chicago Hillel unites over 1,000 Jewish students from 10 colleges and universities across the Chicago area and is supported by JUF's Hillels of Illinois. 


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