Jesse Cohen, past president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and founder of the Pittsburgh chapter of The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, died Saturday, June 2 in his Squirrel Hill home. He was 89.
“PopPop was a leader, but he also fostered leadership,” said Josh Cohen, one of Cohen’s grandsons. “His proudest accomplishment was spearheading the effort to build the West Point Chapel, which paved the way for other military academies to follow.”
A student at the U.S. Military Academy in the 1940s, Cohen became bothered by the lack of a place of worship on campus for Jews. After years of work, a synagogue finally opened on at West Point in 1984.
The skills Cohen learned while working towards his first goal would continue to be used on his next passion project: Israel.
“Jesse was a true leader within AIPAC and the Pittsburgh pro-Israel community,” Howard Kohr, executive director of AIPAC, said in a statement about of Cohen’s commitment to the Jewish state. “His dedication to strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship was evident through the deep, personal relationships he developed, and his legacy will have a lasting impact for years to come.”
Cohen spent much of his life finding ways to support Israel and encouraging others to do the same. He took his family to visit the country in 1968, shortly after the Six-Day War.
“He took Pittsburgh industrialists to Israel,” said his son, Tim Cohen. Those industrialists included the CEOs of US Steel and Coppers. They traveled to Israel during the Arab embargo, and returned to the country many times.
“I must have had a half a dozen people come up to me and say my first trip to Israel was with your father,” Tim said.
Cohen’s passion for Israel was contagious, and his children and their children found their own ways to become involved.
“When I was in college and the ‘73 war broke out, I called my father and I said, ‘I’m leaving school. I’m going to Israel,’” Tim said. “Instead of telling me, ‘What are you thinking? What are you doing?’ He immediately said ‘How can I help?’”
Additionally, Cohen was an early advocate for Jewish education in Pittsburgh, and helped pave the way for Jewish day schools.
“Jesse was an excellent spokesman for the Jewish community and for Israel,” Howard Rieger, former president and CEO of United Jewish Communities, said at Mr. Cohen’s funeral. “He used his many connections here and elsewhere to give others the chance to learn about the mitzva of giving back to those less fortunate. He loved this personal connection and drew strength from being in the center of the action.”
Family was a big part of Cohen’s life. When not volunteering his time in the community, he ran Gee Bee Furniture Center, the retail furniture company established by his father. As his family gathered around to sit shiva, everyone had a favorite story. His daughter, Nancy (Rochel Schlomo), laughed about their experiences driving across Israel the first time. Josh remembered the annual golf tournament they participated in together.
“Something that Avi actually said last night when we were all sitting around is that you go to shiva houses and sometimes it’s very uncomfortable,” said Josh, referring to his cousin and another of Cohen’s grandsons, Avi Shlomo. “You walk in, you’re not sure how to act, but there’s a different feeling at this shiva house and it’s because it mirrors the way my grandparents lived their lives. They appreciated what they had, they counted their blessings and for us, we’re celebrating 89 amazing years and the family that him and my grandmother helped build.”
In addition to Tim of Washington, D.C., and Nancy, of Squirrel Hill, Mr. Cohen is survived by his other daughter Cathy Droz, also of Squirrel Hill. He is also survived by a sister, Sylvia Richard Kaufman, 15 grandchildren, including Josh, and 21 (and counting) great-grandchildren.
Donations can be made to the Naomi and Jesse Cohen Philanthropic Fund at the Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh, 234 McKee Place, Pittsburgh, PA 15213, or to a chosen charity.
(Ilana Yergin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)