Cohen transfers business skills to grow Hillel on campus

Cohen transfers business skills to grow Hillel on campus

Tim R. Cohen serves as Hillel’s senior vice president.
Tim R. Cohen serves as Hillel’s senior vice president.

We have all heard the stories: savvy business people who make a fortune in the commercial world, then kick back, take an early retirement, and shift to a life of leisure sipping Mai Tais on a private beach or sailing the Mediterranean on a 500-foot yacht.

Then there is Tim Cohen.

The former Pittsburgher, who was successful in various industries in the private sector, including introducing Israeli technology to U.S. markets, has chosen to spend the next chapter of his life working at the top level for Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.

Cohen, who is the senior vice president of Hillel, comes honestly to his passion for service to the Jewish community. He grew up in Pittsburgh, the son of the late Naomi and Jesse Cohen. Jesse Cohen was a past president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, and founder of the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

After growing a succession of businesses from Pittsburgh to Miami to Detroit, Cohen decided it was time to determine how his skills could best be used to help other Jews. So, when his fourth child went off to college several years ago, he did a bit of soul-searching.

“I decided it was time for a new adventure,” Cohen told the Chronicle, speaking from the campus of Washington University in St. Louis, where he had just concluded a training institute for 400 international Hillel professionals and scores of student leaders. “I also wanted to find a place to live where the kids would come to visit, so I chose Washington, D.C.”

Washington D.C. happens to be the location of Hillel headquarters, for which Cohen had served as a lay leader for years, he said.  

“I realized I could do this full time,” he said. “So, we moved to D.C., and I joined Hillel in 2005.”

He began his tenure at Hillel as vice president of development, and within three years was promoted to senior vice president of the organization.

And, true to his track record of growing whatever group he helms, Hillel has thrived under his leadership.

“Our numbers have doubled in the last six years,” he said, citing an online survey, conducted by Mark Penn, that showed that while only a third of Jewish college students were coming to Hillel in 2006, now “nearly 46 percent are coming.”

“Our numbers are phenomenal,” he said. “This is people coming on multiple occasions for meaningful experiences, not just for Rosh Hashana services.”

Also on his watch, 25 Hillel buildings across the nation have either been renovated or newly built, thanks to a capital campaign that raised more than $125 million.

And, with the recent hiring of Eric Fingerhut as Hillel’s new president and CEO, Cohen thinks the future for Jewish campus life looks even brighter.

“Eric is going to be great,” Cohen said. “He comes with tremendous credentials.”

A former U.S. congressman and state senator, Fingerhut’s political background “will be helpful dealing with the various roadblocks we’re dealing with,” Cohen said.

Those challenges include anti-Israel activism on many campuses.

Hillel counters anti-Israel activity by promoting Israel advocacy through Birthright trips, providing pre- and post- Birthright programming, and by providing many campuses with Israel fellows, who help educate students on the real facts and history of the conflict.

Funding is another challenge facing Hillel that Cohen believes will benefit from Fingerhut’s experience, both in the political world, and as chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents.

“A majority of our funding comes from local communities,” Cohen said. “In 2008, we had to scale back, and we are now just getting back to where it was. … Eric’s experience will be helpful as he manages the presidency.”

Although Fingerhut does not officially assume his Hillel duties until Aug. 19, he did address the crowd of leaders at Washington University last week. “There is already a love fest,” said Cohen. “Eric clearly leads his life as an authentic Jew. He has a wonderful demeanor. I expect him to be a superstar for us.”

Fingerhut and Cohen are poised to make a good team, facilitating initiatives that will engage those Jews not yet connecting to the Jewish community, and hopefully, reversing recent trends of young Jews opting out of communal Jewish life.

Cohen cited statistics that show that half of Jewish students on campuses in the United States have only one Jewish parent, and “at least a third of our students have no Jewish background,” he said. “These are the ones we are trying to engage,” he said. “There are 400,000 Jewish college students. Eighty-five percent of all Jews go to college, and 80 percent of those are on about 115 campuses. Shame on us if we can’t find ways to engage them.”

The future of Jewish continuity begins with these students, according to Cohen, and that is what lead him to Hillel.

“I had the opportunity to do anything,” he said. “I looked at the Jewish world to see where I could make the most impact. We have the opportunity to make a significant contribution to Jewish life.”

(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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