"Federation involvement is in my DNA," said the executive vice president of Comcast Corporation in a recent interview. "In my family, it would be unthinkable not to be involved in Federation and the Jewish community," he states.
Cohen described a typical weekday evening in the Cohen family's Highland Park, N.J. home as "beginning with dinner, and followed by homework for us kids, and either a synagogue, Federation or National Council for Jewish Women board meeting for mom and dad. My parents and grandparents emphasized Jewish values, traditions and culture in our home," he said, adding that his school and community also were supportive environments for Jews.
"The student population in our public school district was 30 percent to 40 percent Jewish," Cohen commented, adding "… and the percentage of Jewish teachers was even higher — some 60 percent!" He recalled with amusement that "our spring break was determined by the Hebrew, rather than the secular, calendar to ensure that we had time off for Pesach."
Although he left New Jersey for undergraduate work at Swarthmore College and a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania Law School, he returns to his hometown frequently for visits with family and friends. Each High Holiday, Cohen, his wife, Rhonda and their two sons, Benjamin and Joshua, daven at the same Conservative shul that helped shape his values and beliefs.
Cohen is proud to be a member of a faith that encourages respect for diversity and tolerance toward people of different religions and religious groups.
"Jews and Quakers both embrace these tenets of tolerance because of their shared history of persecution. One of my great passions is to bring people of diverse backgrounds and cultures together," he says, adding that "this is the way I try to live my life."
Comcast's commitment to promoting diversity in the workplace and to improving the overall quality of life for minority employees impressed Cohen, who recently helped engineer a three-year national partnership with the National Urban League and has also led the effort for Comcast partnerships with other diverse organizations throughout the country.
Comcast will produce and air a series of public-service announcements highlighting the league's educational programs for African-Americans, and will continue to work with the organization during "Comcast Cares Day" — a company-wide day of service. As a sign of his personal commitment to this partnership, Cohen joined the NUL as a board member.
Comcast's strong sense of social responsibility, and Cohen's respect for the firm's chairman and CEO Brian Roberts influenced Cohen to join the cable, broadband, media, and entertainment company in July 2002 after a long association with Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll, LLP. Cohen rose through the ranks of the firm, one of the 100 largest in the country, ultimately becoming partner and chairman.
He considers current law-firm chair Arthur Makadon as one of his mentors. Makadon, who enjoyed a long friendship with Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, introduced Cohen to the former Philadelphia district attorney at a cocktail reception for Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy.
"When Ed decided to run for mayor, Arthur asked me to look over two drafts of announcement speeches," he recalls, adding: "I didn't like either one of them, so I created my own."
The rest is history: Rendell was elected mayor and Cohen became his chief of staff.
Another notable on Cohen's list of mentors is Leonard Barrack, Federation board chair. When Barrack asked him to join the "new ranks of Federation leadership," Cohen decided that the time was right for him to become involved.
He was impressed with the caliber of people who were engaging or re-engaging in Federation — people like Ronald Rubin, chairman of the board of the Pennsylvania Real Estate Investment Trust; and Stephen A. Cozen, the founder and chairman of Cozen O'Connor.
Cohen also is impressed by the steps taken by Federation President and CEO Ira M. Schwartz to streamline administrative costs and make Federation more transparent, accountable and responsive to donors.
Cohen's leadership experience on the boards of such prominent community organizations as the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, Penn Medicine, the the United Way, the Red Cross, the University of Pennsylvania and City Year has taught him that donors want a say in where the money goes.
"I absolutely believe that Federation is now headed in the right direction, and I feel a personal obligation to help this organization swing back to its former position of prominence," he says.
'This Same Jewish Passion'
Cohen hopes to engage more people like him — prominent, committed Jewish individuals in their 40s and 50s in visible Federation leadership roles. "If more of us step up to the plate, we can create an avalanche effect, giving Federation more momentum and greater impact," he says.
This engagement process is critical at a time when studies indicate that up to 80 percent of philanthropic dollars from Jewish donors go to non-Jewish causes.
While Cohen acknowledges that Jews have an obligation to support the larger community, he is adamant that Jewish donors must make funding for local Jewish needs a high priority.
"It makes my skin crawl when people say that there are no Jewish poor, that there are no Jews who go hungry," he says, emphasizing that "the more people understand the critical needs in this community, the more participation there will be in Federation's annual campaign."
He believes that there is historic precedent for Jews "rallying to Federation" during times of crisis. "Whenever Israel's physical security is threatened, people turn to Federation to provide support," he says, adding "we must ignite this same Jewish passion to meet local needs addressed by Federation and its partner agencies."
Cohen's personal passion for giving back to the Jewish community that shaped his values and nurtured his considerable success is palpable and, hopefully, contagious.
"I believe that we can infuse new energy into Federation and restore it to its role of prominence," he insists, adding that he is "confident that Federation is re-emerging as the place to be in the Philadelphia Jewish community."