On January 3, 1998, lifelong Bergen County resident Melanie Cohen embarked on a career as a professional fundraiser for the Jewish Home Foundation.
Over the next 24 years, she would spearhead successful capital campaigns that enabled the construction of the Jewish Home at Rockleigh, Jewish Home Assisted Living, and a new Center for Rehabilitation Excellence that will be opening this month.
On February 24, Ms. Cohen was feted at a retirement party shortly before her 70th birthday.
“Just as organizations have strategic plans, my retirement wasn’t abrupt; it was part of my life plan,” she said.
Ms. Cohen, who grew up in New Milford and lives in Old Tappan, did not set out to be a fundraising professional. She has a degree in health and physical education from Ithaca College and taught for a brief period when she was first married.
She worked part time in her husband Jeffrey’s podiatry practice in Englewood while the couple’s two children were growing up.
At the same time, she did “a tremendous amount of volunteering and fundraising for Englewood Hospital and Temple Emanuel” of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake, where she served stints as president of the sisterhood and of the synagogue, she said.
“A good percentage of people end up in careers that weren’t in their original plans,” she points out. “I gained my experience from being in the trenches. I did a lot of fundraising and public relations as a volunteer over the years.”
That experience stood her in good stead in the fall of 1997, when she decided to seek full-time employment.
“A woman I knew from Englewood Hospital had become director of the Jewish Home Foundation, then located in Jersey City, and she heard I was looking to go back to work,” Ms. Cohen related.
There was an opening for a fundraising coordinator at the foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Jewish Home Family. That November, Ms. Cohen interviewed with the Jewish Home’s then-CEO, Charles “Chuck” Berkowitz. “He took a chance on me,” she said, to fill the position.
When Ms. Cohen began her job, the Jewish Home was undergoing a major transition. The Jersey City property was being sold and a new building was being constructed in Rockleigh.
“I spent six months commuting to Jersey City and then when construction started, we moved into temporary office space in River Vale adjacent to our small nursing home there,” Ms. Cohen said.
“We then moved into office trailers on the construction property and that allowed us to do capital fundraising for the new facility. I had a pair of construction boots under my desk, and when necessary, I took donors right into the building to kind of kick the tires.”
The Jewish Home at Rockleigh was ready for its first residents in early September 2001. That year, Ms. Cohen earned credentials as a certified fundraising executive. She worked her way up in both responsibility and title, assuming roles as fundraising director, vice president of development, and ultimately as executive director.
“I was responsible for all the fundraising and PR for the Jewish Home at first,” Ms. Cohen said. “The first couple of years were a tremendous learning curve. As the job became bigger and more defined, the communications aspect was moved to Ezra HaLevi. I did all the operational fundraising, planned giving, legacy giving, and capital fundraising. I felt honored to serve in this capacity.”
Ms. Cohen developed an operational annual giving program, Boneh Olam — Builders of the World — where a single annual gift allows donors to partici-pate in special events throughout the year. The concept was adopted by many other area organizations. “By itself, this program now is raising a million and a half dollars each year. Over the years it’s raised close to $20 million,” she said.
Annual events such as the Jewish Home Gala and the Golf, Tennis and Card Outing also grew successfully under her watch.
About six years ago, Jewish Home Foundation launched a $30 million capital campaign for the Charles P. Berkowitz Center for Rehabilitation Excellence, led by Jewish Home president and CEO Carol Silver Elliott.
“This capital campaign was perhaps my biggest but most rewarding challenge,” Ms. Cohen said. “The goal of the Jewish Home operating budgets has always been net zero as far as the organization supporting itself, with the foundation’s annual fundraising being used for special projects that take the Jewish Home from excellent to exceptional.”
Expensive but impactful special projects have included converting to electronic medical records; training staff in the deinstitutionalized nursing-home model of the Green House Project; and overcoming the devastating financial impact of the covid crisis.
The Green House transformation “represents a philosophical change in the way you deliver eldercare,” Ms. Cohen said. The foundation funded the required three years of training to the tune of about $200,000.
Ms. Cohen observed that the fundraising field has changed over the years. Most notably, “a lot more organizations are out there looking for support.”
In terms of local philanthropy, she said, prominent families in the previous two generations — among others, the Seidens, Berries, Taubs, Kaplens, and Adlers — built the Jewish institutions of Bergen County.
“Today’s generation of Jewish philanthropists were handed the Jewish community we have on a silver platter and the inspiration isn’t to build it because it already exists,” she said. “They are supportive, but they have a lot of other philanthropic interests, such as the arts and academic institutions.”
As Baby Boomers age, the mission of supporting community eldercare is becoming ever more critical, Ms. Cohen said. What, then, is the secret to wooing donors?
“The most important thing is that the mission of the organization you’re raising funds for has to be extremely valid and there must be trust that the organization is fiscally sound and has very good professional and volunteer leadership, and that the money being donated will be used properly and for the right purpose,” she said.
“There’s a need for excellence in eldercare, and the Jewish Home is just outstanding at what it does.”
Ms. Cohen confided that she never liked the term “fundraiser,” feeling that it lacked heart and soul.
“I always liked to refer to myself as a facilitator — guiding the generous philanthropy of others.”
Today, the Jewish Home Family encompasses the Jewish Home — Russ Berrie Home for Jewish Living at Rockleigh, Jewish Home Assisted Living — Kaplen Family Senior Residence in River Vale, Jewish Home @ Home, and the new rehab center named in honor of Charles Berkowitz, who retired in 2014.
Ms. Silver Elliott noted that it was Ms. Cohen’s three successful capital campaigns that enabled the building of these facilities.
“Melanie Cohen was more than just the executive director of the Jewish Home Foundation, she was part of the fabric of the Jewish Home Family,” Ms. Silver Elliott said.
“Melanie was a key member of our management team and an active participant in everything the Jewish Home has undertaken. We often talk about the Jewish Home Family as truly being a family, and Melanie has been, and continues to be, a valued and important member of that family. We wish her joy on her retirement.”
Ms. Cohen said that she and her husband, Dr. Jeffrey Cohen, plan to spend more time at their second home in Hilton Head and visit with their children and grandchildren in Fair Lawn and the Boston area. But they remain committed to the Bergen County Jewish community.
“I plan to stay in touch and active with the Jewish Home and other organizations such as Englewood Hospital, Temple Emanuel, and the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey,” she said.
“And if covid and the world are kind to us, we’d like to do some worldwide travel.”
After 24 years, Ms. Cohen said, “it was a good time for me to move on and leave the operations of the Jewish Home Foundation to someone else.”
That someone is Kevin Leopold of River Edge. He comes to the foundation after more than 16 years as Northeast executive director of Americans for Ben-Gurion University, for which he raised more than $250 million.
“I am inspired by Melanie’s passion for the Jewish Home Family’s mission of ensuring aging is a meaningful experience through understanding and meeting each person’s unique individual needs,” Mr. Leopold said.
“Melanie built an extraordinary legacy and development program at the Jewish Home Foundation. I am excited to further build Boneh Olam as well as our endowment and legacy giving in order to further secure the Jewish Home Family’s long-term financial security.”