Remembering Stephen P. Cohen

Remembering Stephen P. Cohen

Fund in Teaneck intellectual’s memory supports coexistence efforts in Israel

Participants of diverse backgrounds in the Lowering the Walls program work to increase tolerance and ease tensions in Jerusalem.
Participants of diverse backgrounds in the Lowering the Walls program work to increase tolerance and ease tensions in Jerusalem.

How do you memorialize a man whose life included memorable meetings with Arab leaders like Anwar Sadat, Yasser Arafat, and Haffez Assad — as well as with their Israeli counterparts?

That’s the question the family and friends of Dr. Stephen P. Cohen faced after he died in January 2017.

“I wanted to come up with a meaningful way to honor his memory that aligned with his mission and vision in life,” Elaine Shisgal Cohen, his widow, said. At first she thought of starting a foundation, “but I realized very quickly how much work would be entailed.”

Instead, she decided to create the Stephen P. Cohen Seekers of Peace Fund under the auspices of the New Israel Fund — where, not altogether coincidentally, Rabbi Ayelet Cohen, the middle of the Cohens’ three daughters, works as director of its New York/Tri-State region.

“I started the job shortly before my father’s death,” Rabbi Cohen said. “It’s very meaningful for me to be doing this work at this moment. I find myself frequently running into old friends of his.”

With help from friends and colleagues, the Cohen family was able to raise $150,000 for its memorial fund. “I had this goal of having the fund last for five years,” Dr. Cohen said.

So how to spend $30,000 a year in a way that would make a difference?

The fund’s first allocation went to a New Israel Fund program called “Lowering the Walls.”

“It has a goal of increasing tolerance and decreasing racism in Jerusalem, which sadly is the Israeli city with the great number of hate crimes and incidents of racism and intolerance,” Dr. Cohen said.

Esther Sivan is the director of Shatil, the New Israel Fund’s division in Israel that works for social change and supports grassroots activists. She explained the details of how Lowering the Walls works.

The program brings together a dozen or so activists from different sectors of Jerusalem — ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews, Muslim and Christian Arabs, newcomers and Ethiopians — to work together on common projects. “Part of the course is learning how to get to know each other,” Ms. Sivan said. “They study subjects together. They talk about racism. They talk about diversity, and how to build a community that all of us are part of.”

And then they work together to bring these lessons back to their workplaces.

“We were very fortunate to have people who really have influence,” Ms. Sivan said. “Like a medical worker at Hadassah Hospital, who leads the hospital’s school for sick children. She took what she learned in our program, and developed a way to teach and talk about the different religious holidays in the different sectors, while everybody in the room is respecting the different habits and customs of the different religions with kids who speak different languages, who come from different cultures, who are observant or secular. That is a very nice translation into everyday life of what is studied in the program.

“Another example is an Arab resident of Jerusalem from Beit Safafa,” an Arab village within Jerusalem’s municipal borders that straddles the 1967 border between East and West Jerusalem.

“All his life his family was very against him becoming friendly with Jews. They wanted him to study in the university but not get to close to Jews. Now he sees things differently. He had this dream of working with high school students, having a small business teaching computer programming.”

After going through the Lowering the Walls program, this man opened a business with a Jewish partner. “He works sometimes in Jewish schools and sometimes in Arab schools. His Jewish friend works sometimes in Jewish schools and sometimes in Arab schools.”

Four cohorts have completed Lowering the Walls. “We already have 60 alumni and are considering having it next year in a different city,” Ms. Sivan said.

The New Israel Fund founded Shatil 38 years ago. “It was aiming at building a civil society in Israel, which hardly existed then,” Ms. Sivan said. “We had the big institutions, the big welfare services, some nonprofit organizations, but there were hardly any advocacy groups that were devoted to actually changing policies.”

Rabbi Cohen said that working for the New Israel Fund was a natural fit. “I feel like I’ve known about the New Israel Fund for as long as I can remember,” she said. “I always felt their work was so essential. They were focused on many issues I care about when I think about Israel. It really feels like an incredible time to be  working for democracy in Israel and strengthening the relationship between progressive American Jews and Israel.

“What was amazing to discover, when I joined the New Israel Fund, was that practically every single Israeli organization I had ever heard about that does work on social and economic justice, on women’s rights, on advancing shared society, on working for equality for Arab Palestinians within Israel — every one of those organizations had been or is a grantee of the New Israel Fund or has received support from Shatil.”

All this connects to Rabbi Cohen’s upbringing as Dr. Cohen’s daughter. “We understood really deeply how essential Israel and the peace process was to my father, and by extension to our family,” Rabbi Cohen said.

“As kids, we had the opportunity to live in Israel and deeply fall in love with Israel, for that to be inseparable from the pursuit of peace. We grew up with a deep understanding of the humanity of Palestinians and of Arabs. My father truly interacted with his Palestinian and Arab colleagues as friends. He wanted us to have those relationships too. Whenever possible he connected us with the kids of the people he was working with. I remember specifically the daughters of a few Jordanian friends and colleagues of his.

“We were so proud of him. We felt he was part of such an essential and hopeful process. It had a huge impact on each of us,” Rabbi Cohen said.

While the Cohen family’s first grant, to the Seekers of Peace Fund, looked within Jerusalem’s borders, the second year’s grant is to a group of Israeli academics looking outside Israel’s borders. The Forum for Regional Thinking aims to change discussions about the Middle East that take place within Israel. It brings together Israeli academic experts in the cultures and societies of the various Arab countries “to help shift Israeli public opinion and discourse,” Rabbi Cohen said.

“They really understand what’s going on in these countries, that there could be new opportunities for cooperation and new possibilities,” she said. “They talk about these ideas in accessible ways. They write op-eds and hold evenings in coffee houses.”

She said this program would please her father, who started his career as an academic in the field of social psychology. “He was a big mind looking for other big thinkers to think about things in a new way,” she said. “He was very interested in the way that Israel fits into the region, the Middle East.”

Save the Date

When: Thursday, June 13, following evening minyan at 8:15 p.m.

Where: Congregation Beth Sholom, 354 Maitland Ave., Teaneck

What: Evening in memory of Steven P. Cohen, featuring Rabbi Ayelet Cohen in conversation with Esther Sivan.

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