High school student and organization board member aren’t titles that often overlap. But don’t tell that to Ben Cohen.
The 17-year-old Squirrel Hill resident is just a few months away from graduating at Shady Side Academy, and just a few months into his new position as the youngest board member of the Jewish Assistance Fund.
Cohen’s journey to the boardroom really began in 2005, and with another activity not normally associated with teenage Jews — glassblowing.
He received a Chanuka gift certificate to a glassblowing class at Pittsburgh Glass Center, but “they ran out of glass when we showed up,” said Cohen. Just 13 at the time, his parents, Ellen and Jeffrey Cohen, brought him back instead for a two-week glassblowing camp with his three siblings.
“But I was the only one who really liked it,” said Cohen. After searching for a more regular teacher and studio to blow glass, Cohen began working with Drew Hine, a South Side glassblower and owner of Vessel Studio Glass Art.
After two years of creating artistic glass pieces, including two showcases of his work at Hine’s studio and Color Me Mine, Cohen had amassed some extra cash — and was ready to give back. Last month, he donated 25 percent of what he made to JAF — and the organization’s board extended an invitation to Cohen to join them. But it wasn’t the donation that prompted the invitation, of course.
“[Having Cohen as a board member] is wonderful,” said board member and past JAF president Jim Reich. “He may have some perspective that the old timers don’t. To have a young guy like him, who’s serious — that’s what we need.”
Founded in 1985, JAF provides immediate financial support to local families lacking basic human necessities, including food, clothing, shelter and medicine. Every year, JAF distributes over $160,000 to more than 750 families in such need.
JAF’s Jewish focus was a big draw to Cohen when debating to which charity he would donate his art fund, but Cohen was first drawn to the JAF because he felt it corrected a crucial misunderstanding among the Jewish community.
“I feel like most people think that all Jews are wealthy,” said Cohen. “So Jews who need help are … not forgotten, but there’s not much attention paid to them. People make generalizations and say Jews are wealthy so they don’t have problems.”
Now, as a board member (he attended his first board meeting just weeks ago), Cohen will reach out to younger community members about donating funds to the JAF.
“I’ll be visiting synagogues and Sunday schools and talking to kids about it,” he said. “It’s easier for me to relate to Hebrew school and religious school kids than anybody else. Its just getting younger kids involved.”
As for the future, Cohen’s involvement with JAF may be in question — he will graduate high school in 2011 and plans to attend college next fall. But his work with JAF has already left an impression on the young leader.
“I don’t know if this is a starting point or where I’ll stay,” said Cohen of his future in charity work. “As of now, I’m just looking to see how things work. I’d say I’m part student, part spokesperson.”
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)