Teaching tolerance

Teaching tolerance

Englewood councilman heads Wiesenthal Center’s eastern office

The name “Simon Wiesenthal” brings the celebrated Nazi hunter to mind. But the multinational Holocaust-education center that bears his name — with offices in New York, Toronto, Miami, Chicago, Paris, Buenos Aires, and Jerusalem — is dedicated to the larger mission of promoting tolerance and human rights, confronting anti-Semitism and hatred, standing with Israel and defending the safety of Jews worldwide.

Englewood City Councilman Michael D. Cohen recently took on the title of eastern director for the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Museum of Tolerance in New York, following three years as its principal lobbyist.

During those three years, he was instrumental in securing significant funding for the center’s Tools for Tolerance diversity training for the New York City Police Department and the New York City Corrections Department. Through this program, some 200,000 New York law-enforcement officers so far have received training in culture sensitivity and tolerance. Tools for Tolerance also works with judges, lawyers, managers, scientists, nurses, librarians, teachers, doctors, executives, and other professionals.

“The Wiesenthal Center has a constituency of 400,000 households in the United States, and over 150,000 in the tristate area,” Mr. Cohen said. “There is a lot of work we have to do to unify communities and confront hate and terrorism. We never were meant to be a center of artifacts but of action.”

Since taking office just after Rosh Hashanah, he has started offering Tools for Tolerance to New Jersey police chiefs and mayors. “We see how law enforcement is on the front lines in dealing with tolerance. Officers are taught how to hold a gun but not how to speak to a person, to understand what to say in different situations and communities, how to lower tensions and have successful interactions.”

Among other programs under the purview of Mr. Cohen and his fulltime regional staff of 10 are anti-bullying training for some 20,000 schoolchildren per year, and advocacy training for college students and young professionals about Israel, anti-Semitism, and racial stereotypes.

The Wiesenthal Center’s emphasis on understanding and celebrating diversity, bringing people together, and building communal alliances has resonated deeply with this Second Ward councilman in a city that has struggled with racial and economic diversity.

In 2012, Superstorm Sandy significantly damaged the Mackay Park ice rink, which is in Englewood’s least privileged section, the Fourth Ward, but used mainly by figure skaters and hockey players from more affluent parts of Englewood and surrounding municipalities. After the storm, Fourth Warders lobbied to have the space rebuilt as a local community center. Mr. Cohen saw an opportunity for making Mackay more inclusive without sacrificing the rink.

“Helping to save the Englewood public ice rink dovetails with my work here at the Wiesenthal Center,” he said. “I worked with folks in our community to build a nonprofit to serve all the communities in Englewood so the rink could also be a point for community gathering, and that’s what has happened in the past two years. The city of Englewood did not have a place everyone felt comfortable coming to and interacting together, and now they’re coming to holiday parties and playing hockey and ice-skating together. These are populations who were not previously meeting one another, and it’s been a great unifier.”

Bringing together diverse groups has been Mr. Cohen’s priority since his days as a Brooklyn College political science student. He commuted to Washington to serve on the staff of Rep. Ed Towns, who was an African-American Democrat from New York, from 1983 to 2013, and a senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus.

“In 1989, Ehud Barak came from Israel to meet with the Congressional leadership, and Ed Towns was going to be in some of those meetings. Jewish groups wanted to lobby him, so he called me in,” Mr. Cohen said. “I was 20 at the time and the only Jewish member of his staff, so he asked me for a briefing on these groups and their missions. I had an epiphany in the middle of the night that there must be an information gap with other members of the Black Caucus as well. I proposed a conference between Jewish groups and the caucus. It came to pass, and presidents of all the major Jewish organizations flew in for it. A lot of those relationships persist to this day.”

Rabbi Meyer May, executive director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, pointed to this bridge-building background in his praise of Mr. Cohen when he began his new job.

“Michael Cohen has a long record of passion and dedication to the issues most critical to the mission of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Museum of Tolerance,” Rabbi May said. “From his communal work in bringing people together to his ability to provide innovative strategies for organizational development, I am confident that Michael will help bring about a new level of achievement to our Eastern Region.”

Before joining the Wiesenthal Center, Mr. Cohen was New York State director of political and strategic affairs at government relations firm Pitta, Bishop, Del Giorno & Giblin. He holds a master’s degree in political science and was chief of staff to New York State Senator John L. Sampson and on the staffs of New York Assemblyman Scott Stringer, who is now Manhattan borough president, and New York City Public Advocate Mark Green, among others.

Though he has been involved in politics since his teens, running for office was not initially in Mr. Cohen’s plans when he moved to Englewood in 2005. “But the issues of property taxes and representation were critical at the time, and I was approached by quite a number of folks to use my experience to help the community,” he said. “I believe it’s your obligation to be active in whatever community you live in.”

He won election in November 2010, on his 33rd birthday. Now nearing the end of his second term, Mr. Cohen is president pro tem of the council for the third time and serves on the Englewood Traffic Advisory Committee.

Mr. Cohen and his family are members of the Orthodox Congregation Ahavath Torah. Growing up in Brooklyn, he witnessed the progress made by Orthodox Jews in America.

“I remember my uncle had to hide the fact that he was Orthodox if he didn’t want to get fired,” he said. “Today we’re on the cusp of a new generation of leadership that needs to realize what has to be done to maintain the strides that have been made.

“Our numbers are not growing in the same way that other communities’ numbers are. The Jewish community has challenges we need to prepare for down the road, and we can’t get too complacent standing on the shoulders of prior generations that cut their teeth on the Soviet Jewry movement and other achievements. We must maintain a high level of visibility and advocacy to remain effective.”

Mr. Cohen said that the Simon Wiesenthal Center, at 226 East 42nd Street in Manhattan, plays a key role “in understanding the complex pluralistic nature of our society, and bridging the gaps necessary to protect the future of both the Jewish community and our partners in building a more tolerant tomorrow. I have built my career around those same valued objectives, and greatly appreciate the chance to forward the center’s critical mission.”

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