After 15 years as international chair of the B’nai B’rith International Cuban Jewish Relief Project, Stanley Cohen of Squirrel Hill is semi-retiring — a move that precipitates transferring the office of the project he founded from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C.
Cohen, whom B’nai B’rith recently honored at a function in New York, has made some 40 trips to the island, facilitating projects to enhance Jewish life there and acting as an unofficial ambassador to its small but active community.
On many of those trips he led groups of American Jews he recruited so they could see for themselves conditions on the island and how American assistance could make a difference in Jewish life there.
“Stan is our founder, our chairman emeritus, our senior advisor, a visionary and good friend,” Stuart Cooper, who will succeed Cohen as interim chairman of the project, said of his predecessor at the New York function. “He shows what makes B’nai B’rith so special. One individual can take an idea and it can
become part of our national, and even international programs.
Indeed, Cohen, who will retain the title chairman emeritus, worked almost singlehandedly for years to put the issues facing Cuban Jewry before the rest of the Jewish world.
Through his connections with the Pittsburgh-based Brother’s Brother Foundation (he is a past chairman) Cohen brought medicines, food, clothing and other necessities to Cuban Jews that were otherwise difficult or impossible to obtain in a country where the average wage is $15 per month.
He also helped refit the island’s only kosher butcher shop with refrigeration equipment and a grinding machine.
And the project delivered four Torahs to the island.
Such necessities will continue to be the most important support B’nai B’rith can offer, Cooper told the Chronicle.
“The biggest thing we’re doing right now is helping to feed people; we see that as a major thing,” he said. “As you know, we stay out of politics. We understand the level of pay these people get and the limitations this causes — we’re trying to fill in where these limitations are.”
To illustrate Cohen’s influence among Cuban Jews, only two Cubans belonged to B’nai B’rith when he began visiting in 1996. Today, there are more than 100.
The media, including the Chronicle, have frequently sought him out as an expert commentator on news stories affecting Jews in Cuba, most recently about the trial of Alan Gross, an American citizen arrested there on charges of spying.
The Cuban Jewish community numbers approximately 1,500 and supports three large synagogues in its capital, Havana. Smaller communities exist around the island.
To Cohen, his experience shows that one person can make a difference. “I would like to encourage young people to do the kind of thing I’ve done,” he said.
He couldn’t help but note that the job he did for years at the Cuban Jewish Relief Project will now be handled by a staff of eight now that the office is relocating to Washington.
Cooper, who has made seven trips to Cuba, said job one for B’nai B’rith is retaining the trust with Cuban Jewry that Cohen developed over the years.
“Stan became a friend to them that they could trust,” he said. “If he said something to them, that something was going to happen, he made sure it did, so we have a legacy to follow to continue this program — with the vision he had — and expand it even further.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at email@example.com.)