Englewood’s Michael Cohen

Englewood’s Michael Cohen

The path from Brooklyn boy to city councilman ran through Albany and Capitol Hill

Inset photos: Michael Cohen speaks at a rally outside the French consulate in Manhattan to protest the U.N.’s vote against Israeli settlements and at an anti-BDS rally; here he stands next to a Muslim woman who also is opposing BDS.
Inset photos: Michael Cohen speaks at a rally outside the French consulate in Manhattan to protest the U.N.’s vote against Israeli settlements and at an anti-BDS rally; here he stands next to a Muslim woman who also is opposing BDS.

Michael Cohen of Englewood rushes in to meet you. He’s late. That’s not surprising. He’s constantly rushing, often late, because there is so much that he has to say, so much that he urgently has to do.

He brings such a powerful, intense waft of energy with him that he nearly knocks you over. That, you learn quickly, isn’t surprising either. Talking to him is an exercise in keeping up with the rush of words and ideas and stories in which he clearly revels.

Mr. Cohen is the eastern regional director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and represents the second ward on Englewood’s city council. Not yet 40, with a history of accomplishments and political relationships that seem to fill at least a physics-defying six decades, he has brought together seemingly irreconcilable people and politics.

As a very young man, he ran political campaigns. An Orthodox Jew, he worked extensively in the African-American community, developing relationships that went beyond the workplace to turn into real friendships, based not on expediency but on trust. And as a Brooklyn boy, a serious New Yorker, he’s become rooted in New Jersey.

So, meet Michael Cohen.

Michael’s grandfather, Irwin Cohen, a third-generation Brooklyn native, who was president of his shul, Young Israel of Flatbush, “one of the major Orthodox synagogues in Brooklyn, and at a time when there wasn’t a synagogue on every other block,” is Michael’s role model; “He still inspires me to do what I do,” he said. And his great-uncle was the president of the Yeshiva of Flatbush. The Cohen family lived with the assumption that community service was an unshirkable responsibility.

Mr. Cohen’s father, Mark, who now lives on Long Island, worked in the family lighting business that his father and uncle started in the 1940s, “working out of the backs of their cars,” he said.

Michael’s mother, Sandra Wolf Cohen, was born in Santiago, Chile, the daughter of Holocaust refugees. The family probably would have stayed there, but one of Sandra’s identical brothers was born with a hole in his heart — a hole that could be fixed in the United States, but not in Chile. (It probably was a very good thing for the Wolfs that they left; there was a military coup six months later, and interesting times rarely are comfortable times.) Meanwhile, the family was told that little Martin Wolf would have only a 25 percent chance of surviving the experimental new surgery, but a 0 percent chance of surviving without it. He was not expected to make it into adulthood.

“He died at 62, a few years ago,” Michael Cohen said. “And if he hadn’t needed that surgery, the family would have stayed in Chile, and I would never have been born.”

His parents met at Grossinger’s, the iconic Catskill Hotel that was responsible for so many Jewish marriages. In the end, this one didn’t take — Mark and Sandra got divorced when Michael was 20 — but at least they met cute.

Michael grew up in Midwood, on Avenue K. His family rented their house, and the landlords lived there too.

“It took me years to realize who our landlords were,” he said. “They were Sonia and her husband, Zoosh. Zoosh was Zus Bielski, the second oldest of the four fierce Bielski brothers, the wild-fighting partisans who lived in the forests of Poland, fought the Nazis, and rescued other Jews from the Holocaust. “Growing up, I had no idea who he was,” he continued. “Mr. Bielski would always sit there, on his beach chair, with his shirt untucked, a big magen david hanging out, and a lot of chest hair. And he always had a big cigar.

“I wasn’t allowed to throw a ball against the stairs when he was there, so I always wanted him to move, so I could play ball.”

He did see that his father treated their landlord with unusual respect. “There are always landlord-tenant issues, but my father always had a respect for him, and a feeling that there are certain lines you don’t want to cross.”

He looks back with some regret. “When you are a kid, you don’t think about this, but now I realize the conversations I could have had with him.”

Michael went to the Yeshiva of Flatbush for elementary and most of high school. But he wasn’t doing well, his parents didn’t particularly like his friends, and “they thought I would do better with a change of environment.”

That’s how Michael found himself, for his senior year of high school, at the New England Academy of Torah, in Providence, R.I. “It was a very good year,” he said. The school’s secular academics didn’t compare to the Yeshiva of Flatbush’s, but he was able to get a real sense of how a serious religious life could be lived from the teachers there; certainly such seriousness of purpose was available at Flatbush, but he wasn’t able to look beyond the familiar to see it there. And he also learned that there is a universe beyond Brooklyn. “Growing up where I did, you think that the world starts and ends on Flatbush Avenue,” he said. “You didn’t even think that there was another part of Brooklyn. It really opened my eyes.” The students were all Orthodox Jews, but they came from such exotic places as Canada and Massachusetts.

After he graduated from high school, Michael spent a year in Israel. “It really is a profound experience,” he said. He went to Shaare Yerushalayim, a yeshiva that “had the philosophy that if all you want to do is learn, you can learn in Brooklyn. This philosophy was about taking you to the places that you were learning about, so that if you were learning about Hebron, say, or Sfat, you would spend a weekend there.

Michael spent his gap year in Israel.
Michael spent his gap year in Israel.

“What affected me most was that it insisted that we do community service, and I chose a program called Achim.” Brothers.

This was the mid-1990s, and there was an influx of Ethiopians who lived in caravan camps in the north of Israel. “The program wanted to do outreach to these people, who were new to Israel, new to the culture, new to everything.” So once a month, on a Thursday, the young men would go north; in the morning, they’d take the Ethiopian kids’ buses to school with them, and they’d spend Shabbat with the children and their families. They’d tutor them informally and learn from each other. “We were showing them that we care, and that here they were in a foreign land, but they were not foreigners.

“They were Jews, just like everyone else. And I had some of the most beautiful Shabbats of my life there.”

A young Michael Cohen with an even younger Ethiopian-Israeli child.
A young Michael Cohen with an even younger Ethiopian-Israeli child.

Back in Brooklyn, Michael lived at home and matriculated at Brooklyn College. He interned for a local Jewish newspaper, and as a sophomore, in 1998, he volunteered for an up-and-coming local politician, Noach Dear, who was running in the Democratic primary for Congress. Mr. Dear, who now is a judge, did not win that race, but Michael Cohen learned a great deal from it.

“I just walked in and asked if I could volunteer,” he recalled. “I knew his name because he lived down the block from my grandparents. I was interning for the paper then and they said that you can either write about it or you can affect what happens. My internship was about to end anyway, so I said I wanted to be there, and they put me in the finance office.

“I was there for three days, and the entire finance team was fired, and they asked me if I could hold down the fort for three or four days, until they hired someone new. And then the new team came in, and the new finance director said he needed someone local, who knew the system. So I was hired as deputy finance director on a congressional campaign. I had been there for maybe a week.

“I was 19.”

Michael spent the summer with the campaign, “putting in insane hours, and helping wherever they needed help. One thing they knew how to do was raise money, and I learned how to do that.

The Democratic congressional primary had four candidates, who all came within 1,500 votes of each other. The winner, who held onto the seat through a few elections until his career ended in an unsavory and highly public way, was Anthony Wiener; Michael worked for him on that campaign.

“And then, at the end of the summer, I went back to school to start my junior year.” Not surprisingly, he majored in political science.

Next — and while he still was in college — Michael went to work for Mark Green, who then was New York City’s public advocate; Mr. Green went on to run for mayor and lose — against Michael Bloomberg, in the primary election that was set for September 11, 2001. And then, after an internship program run by the Orthodox Union, Michael went to work for Congressman Ed Towns. His first stint with the congressman was during a summer when he was in college.

That day, Mr. Cohen accompanied his employer, Ed Towns, and Malcolm Hoenlein, then as now head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
That day, Mr. Cohen accompanied his employer, Ed Towns, and Malcolm Hoenlein, then as now head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Mr. Towns, who is 83, retired in 2013; a Democrat, he represented his Brooklyn district from 1983, through a redistricting, until then. As befits his seniority, he became powerful, at one point chairing the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. (In 2011, when the House became Republican, he gave that seat over to Darrell Issa, who holds it now.)

One of the first lessons he learned, Michael said, is that like the Jewish world, the political world is small and tight-knit. You’re never too many degrees away from anyone else.

When he went to his office to meet Mr. Towns for the first time, Michael said, he had to wait while Mr. Towns took a phone call. During that call, the congressman looked at the young man, and then said, ‘You’re Mikey Cohen.’

“‘I said yes, and wondered how he knew that,’” Michael said.

“Then he asks me if I have my baseball glove with me, and I said yes, back in my apartment in Foggy Bottom, and he got back on the phone and said, ‘Don’t worry. He’ll be there soon.’”

“And then he hung up and said, ‘That was Congressman Weiner. He knows that you played high school baseball, and he has a pickup game on the Capitol lawn. He wants a ringer to play shortstop. So go back to your apartment, get your glove, and meet him on the lawn.

“So my first official assignment was to play baseball for Anthony Weiner. And the information came from one of his staffers, who knew me from high school.”

But beyond the baseball games — seriously competitive but otherwise not serious — important issues waited.

“Ehud Barak had just been elected as Israel’s prime minister,” Michael said. “And he was scheduled to meet with one of the congressman’s committees in about two weeks. So we started getting calls from Jewish institutions that wanted to meet him. So Congressman Towns called me into his office, and said that tomorrow morning I have a meeting on this, and can you brief me on it.

“I told him that I could either give him a quick overview or do some research and brief you tomorrow.

“And then I had an epiphany. I realized that Ed Towns had one of the largest, if not the largest Jewish constituency of anyone in the black caucus, and he is asking me, a 22-year-old intern, for a briefing.”

So, Michael thought, the light bulb going off over his head, “We should have a conference about it for the all the members of the Congressional Black Caucus.”

Michael tried to sell his idea to Mr. Towns’ chief of staff early the next morning. After she talked him down, sobered him up, and made him refine his ideas into a workable form, the chief of staff presented it favorably to Mr. Towns, who always had been reliably pro-Israel and friendly to Jews, but was not a leader in that area. “And he said that you can do the conference — but with a caveat. We have to get two co-sponsors — James Clyburn and John Lewis.”

Mr. Clyburn, a Democrat who has represented South Carolina since 1993, has been, among other things, the House majority whip; he is now the third ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives. Mr. Lewis, a Democrat from Georgia who has been in the House since 1987, is an iconic civil rights leader, who led the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, led the Freedom Riders, worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and was beaten almost to death crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., on Bloody Sunday.

All in all, the two men had a formidable moral presence; they were not likely to be swayed by a 22-year-old unless they believed in what that young man was offering them.

When Michael Cohen was told that he had to get approval from those two giants for the conference he was proposing — in many ways, this sounds like the fairy tale quest that will get the hero what he wants, the broom that can get Dorothy back home, the answer to the riddle that will grant the prince the princess’s hand or turn the beast back into a handsome young man — “it’s embarrassing, but then I didn’t recognize either name,” Michael said. “I didn’t even know who John Lewis was! Thank god for my naivety.

“So I walked down the hall to John Lewis’s office, and I don’t know the protocol yet, so I see a senior staffer and I say that I have a message from Ed Towns that I have to deliver in person. That staffer could have said no, but instead he walked me right in, and I start pitching John Lewis — I, a 22-year old, start pitching John Lewis! — on the importance of black-Jewish relations.

“And he looks at me, and he says, ‘Son we may all have gotten here on different ships, but we’re on the same boat. I admire your passion, and we will get together and do it.’”

And it was so. Representatives Lewis and Clyburn both agreed to the conference.

“Some of his staff was baffled,” Michael said of Mr. Lewis. “But a man of his caliber, he saw so many moves ahead.”

At the congressional conference on black-Jewish relations that was his brainchild, Mr. Cohen talks with congressmen, from left, Alcee Hastings, John Lewis, and Ed Towns.
At the congressional conference on black-Jewish relations that was his brainchild, Mr. Cohen talks with congressmen, from left, Alcee Hastings, John Lewis, and Ed Towns.

The conference happened, and “I was working on it for a few weeks, and then we had two incidents. There were three shuls burned to the ground in Sacramento, and then a man in Texas” — it was James Byrd Jr. — was pulled behind a truck in Texas.” He was brutally murdered; the case was a national outrage. “All of a sudden, the calls for the two communities to work together was much enhanced — and here we had this conference.”

In the end, 24 of the 34 members of the Congressional Black Caucus came to the conference, and so did Jewish leaders. “They talked about how we could work together. There were national headlines, and a lot of the relationships really stayed.”

Michael’s relationship with Ed Towns is ongoing,  and the now-retired congressman, is glad to talk about his protégé. “He had tremendous organizing skills, and he is truly a coalition builder,” Mr. Towns said. “He can work in every neighborhood, every section, because of his ability to adjust.

“He is one of the most personable individuals I have ever met in my life. He loves people, and he finds great satisfaction in being able to assist folks. He takes great pride in that. He was a delight to have on staff.”

He didn’t give up, Mr. Towns said. The issue of how to help immigrants is perennial. “I don’t know how many times we would have a meeting about someone, and we’d say, ‘We can’t do anything here. Let’s give up.’ Michael was always the guy at the table to say, ‘Let’s try again.’”

One of the ways that Michael, as an observant Jew, was able to be comfortable in other words, including the largely African-American world of Mr. Town’s office, was “to talk about his religion and his religion beliefs,” Mr. Towns said. “He talked about the days when he wouldn’t do certain things, and it always was accepted, because he was so open and honest about it. About everything.

“With Michael, what you see is what you get.”

Michael Cohen finished college, and went on to a flourishing career in New York politics. His birthday often falls on Election Day; when he turned 21, he won his first citywide campaign, to keep the office of public advocate. He was working for the public advocate, Mark Green, as his legislative assistant.

At the same time, Michael went to graduate school at his alma mater, Brooklyn College, earned a master’s in political science, and went back to work for Mr. Towns, this time as a staffer, in charge of his relationships with the Jewish community.

Michael worked for and with a number of local Democratic politicians, most of them either Jewish — Mark Green, Scott Stringer — or black — Mr. Towns, John Sampson, Bill Perkins, Mathieu Eugene. He was Mr. Sampson’s chief of staff — “a white Orthodox Jew as his head of staff!” Michael said. “Sampson said, ‘I hire based on quality.’” Eventually, many campaigns later, Sampson became the state Senate majority leader, and Michael still was his chief of staff.

“The good thing was that we had a core group of folks. I had grown up with them politically for years. We had incredible trust in each other. And we were really friends. We went to each other’s weddings, and did all that personal stuff.”

Michael did a huge amount of fundraising. The Democrats retained the Senate majority for just a short time, but while it lasted, “We were really taking on, for the first time, a lot of legislation that had been bottlenecked for a generation,” he said.

“We realized that we had an African American Senate majority leader, and there was a real change of power. And they weren’t the people the Jewish communal structure had relationships with, and here I was, an Orthodox Jew, as chief of staff,” he said.

“In a sense, I really felt a lot of weight on my shoulders. It was my responsibility to carry the weight of the Jewish world in the New York Senate. I was the gatekeeper, and I was maybe 32.

“Sampson embraced it immediately,” he continued. “He embraced every Jewish group, invited them to briefing sessions, was interviewed on the Jewish radio shows. The Jewish world quickly came to have respect for him.”

One of the programs he worked on, Michael said, was getting the Tuition Assistance Program — TAP — for rabbinical students. “The Jewish community convinced Sampson that he needed to pass it. They hadn’t been able to pass it before, but we walked him through it, with meeting after meeting after meeting, and then when he realized that it had to be done, he went to the leadership and sold it.

“It was amazing, how you had an African American leader selling TAP for rabbinical students. We had a relationship, and I was in the position to facilitate it.”

In 2011, he left New York State politics to work for the Orthodox Union, running the New York office’s political operations. “I was there for a year, and we made some real progress.” Given his background, he was able to show “how to communicate with people beyond your comfort zone.

“I was lobbying an assemblyman, an African American who had been there for at least 20 years,” Michael said. “It was an off-the-record conversation, and he asked me, ‘Why would I want to convince inner city public school parents in my district that the yeshiva world should get all this money for private schools so they can go to Harvard while all the kids who look like mine suffer?’

“My son was in kindergarten at the time, and I said, ‘If my son is in public school, and all the kids around him are eating nonkosher food in the lunchroom, then his first impression of his heritage will be negative. And what if there is a party on Saturday, and he can’t go? Then his second impression of his heritage is negative.

“ ‘What we have to worry about is not the quality of education. We are not sending them to yeshiva for better academics. We are sending them to yeshiva because in their formative years, we need their environment to be positive.’

“And he said to me, ‘There is one major problem I have with your argument, and that is why is it that I have been in the Assembly for 20 years, and you are the first person to make that argument to me? Everyone has always thought that because I am an African American, I would not be an ally of yours. I feel that your community has been alien to me.

“But now I understand, and now I can sell it.”

Emotional and mental changes like this take time, Michael said, and they do not yield quick results. “But we are playing a long game here. Before we can advocate, we have to educate. It will take time.”

After the OU, Michael decided that with children approaching school age, he should consider a more lucrative career. He became the political affairs director for a lobbying firm, Pitta Bishop Del Giorno & Giblin, for three years, mainly working on public interest clients, including the Simon Wiesenthal Center. The more he worked for the center, the more identified with it he became. “We worked with the center to organize the first ever mayoral debate on tolerance issues,” he said. “It was a month before the mayoral primary in 2013; we had all the candidates there, for a moderated debate. They debated these issues for two hours.”

Soon, Rabbi Steven Burg, who had been Michael’s mentor at the OU and was working at the Wiesenthal Center, left to run Aish HaTorah, and he recruited Michael for his old job.

In this job, “you can really have an impact on the Jewish world. How could I pass that up?” Michael said. “I was incredibly enthusiastic. There are some things that are more important than money — to be able to play a pivotal role in the life of your people is a remarkable opportunity.

“The leadership of the Wiesenthal Center were and are incredibly warm. They are a lean machine. They don’t look for bureaucracy, they look for effectiveness. They are not in a box, and they are not stagnant in their ideas. They are constantly adapting to new realities and welcome aggressiveness.

“I really wake up every day smiling, thinking that I can do this,” he said.

“My wife says that she has never seen me work harder — or be as happy. It doesn’t mean that everything is good in the world, but I am happy to be in a position where I can do something about it. The tools and resources the Wiesenthal Center brings to bear are second to none — its ability to head off anti-Semitism at the pass, to proactively educate the community.

The whole family — clockwise from top left, parents Michael and Elana with Eitan, Alex, Lexi, Jesse, and Zeke — celebrate Eitan’s bar mitzvah.
The whole family — clockwise from top left, parents Michael and Elana with Eitan, Alex, Lexi, Jesse, and Zeke — celebrate Eitan’s bar mitzvah.

“We recognize the need to engage in sensitivity training, and we must train our youth to fight against digital terrorism. We must make alliances with other communities, stand tall together, and understand that when we say never again, we say it for all people. We must fight discrimination and stereotyping in all forms.”

What about the changed political environment and the newly resurgent anti-Semitism that seems to have accompanied the presidential election and the new administration?

“We have seen a greater degree of passion and desire for the growth of the programs that we have in educating and combating anti-Semitism, hate and bigotry, which while always necessary has been certainly growing of late,” Michael said carefully.

Meanwhile, Michael moved to Englewood in 2005; he is married to Elana Cohen and is the father of three children — Jesse, 10, Zeke, 8, and Lexi, 7 — and the stepfather of two, Eitan, 13, and Alex, 10. He joined Congregation Ahavat Torah.

His political career in Englewood probably was inevitable, but he did not see it coming. “One of the reasons I moved to New Jersey was that my political life was so overwhelming in New York, and I wanted the separation,” he said. “But after I was here for about four or five years, hearing about problems at Shabbos table after Shabbos table, I would say. ‘Why don’t you guys go to council meetings?’ ‘Why don’t you do this?’ ‘Why don’t you do that?’ So when there was a vacancy in the Second Ward, everybody came running to me, saying, ‘You have all these great ideas, so why don’t you run?

“And then all of a sudden I am running.

“I ended up getting 68 percent of the vote, and next thing you know I am on the city council.” He was elected in 2010 for the first time and is now in his third term.

The Moriah School in Englewood ran a program teaching kids to fight hatred online with the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
The Moriah School in Englewood ran a program teaching kids to fight hatred online with the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

When he was sworn in, all the parts of Michael Cohen’s life came together. “My political folks from New York wanted to be there, so you had many members of the New York City Council, the New York State Senate and State Assembly coming to Englewood for my swearing in. It was funny; when the mayor was about to begin the program for the swearing in, he said, ‘I don’t’ think we’ve ever had the senate majority leader from another state at one of these before.”

Michael has continued to build bridges among ethnic groups in Englewood. “The first resolution that I forwarded and passed was to make Juneteenth,” the day that commemorates the end of slavery, “an official holiday in Englewood.”

In September, Michael was able to use his relationships and his understanding of how local politics work when he shepherded a resolution through the city council rejecting the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. It’s a nonbinding resolution, but it is a strong statement of the community’s position. The resolution passed unanimously, with the support of the city’s ethnic communities; a similar bill already had passed the New York City Council, with Michael’s behind-the-scenes help but with much more controversy. In Englewood, community-building paid off.

Since then, with Michael’s help, similar anti-BDS resolutions have passed in Norwood, Closter, Midland Park, Little Ferry, New Milford, Bergenfield, Hawthorne, Livingston, Tenafly, Paramus, and Caldwell.

Many of Michael’s other accomplishments are the stuff of city councils everywhere — he found a way to lower taxes through greater efficiencies, he found open lines on budgets, he coordinated police overtime so officers did not have to waste time sitting around in court, instead showing up closer to when they actually were needed. He introduced automated garbage trucks, which did not cost people their jobs but did keep them from hurting themselves.

It is through such necessary, unglamorous work that a city can function; it needs both big grand gestures and detailed housekeeping.

Through his background in local politics, his alliances with the African American community and his deep rootedness in the Jewish world, and his work at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Michael Cohen is uniquely situated to do all these things. And knowing him, he’ll do them with intensity, flair, and passion.