When the Jewish community found out Paul Cohen was being honored for his 25-plus years of community activism, including serving on the board of San Francisco Hillel, the event became the hottest ticket in town.
All it took was a save-the-date announcement. “It sold out before we sent out a single invitation,” said Ollie Benn, S.F. Hillel’s executive director.
Cohen, who has given his time to a wide cast of Jewish organizations and causes, will be honored at a Feb. 12 gala at Lake Merced Golf Club. The event will raise money for the Paul J. Cohen Fund for Student Leadership, which will, among other things, support outreach efforts to incoming Jewish college freshmen.
“I’m humbled by the number of people coming out [to the event] and by the amount of money that they’ve raised,” said Cohen. “Each of us has the opportunity to nurture and mentor — whether children of our own, co-workers, or people we come across through organizational relationships. This is one of the greatest gifts we have to offer.”
Friends invariably describe Cohen as “generous,” “caring,” “intrepid” and “nurturing.” In other words, a mensch. “For Paul it’s really all about the people,” said Benn. “He cares about people on the personal level, as well as on the professional level.”
Cohen, who has served Hillel as its director of campus advancement for Northern California, has a long record of civic engagement with the JCC of San Francisco, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, Jewish LearningWorks, Menorah Park and Congregation Sha’ar Zahav.
“There are two overriding themes that recur with Paul,” said Herb Tobin, a senior consultant to Hillel International, who plans to attend the event. “One is his absolute undying commitment not merely to Hillel, but to the Jewish people and building Jewish community and to Yiddishkeit. The second is his unwavering commitment to serving students and young professionals.”
Each of us has the opportunity to nurture and mentor — whether children of our own, co-workers, or people we come across through organizational relationships. This is one of the greatest gifts we have to offer.
Another of Cohen’s fans is longtime Hillel staffer Adina Danzig Epelman. “I’ve known Paul since 2000 when I started work as associate director of Hillel at Stanford and then as interim executive director,” she said. “I wouldn’t have gotten through that work had it not been for Paul. He really was my go-to support as we renovated, designed and constructed a building and went through a capital campaign.”
Cohen also has been an LGBT activist for many years. In addition to serving on the board of San Francisco’s Sha’ar Zahav, he helped create the Federation’s LGBTQ Pathways to Leadership program, which mentors young LGBT activists in community leadership skills.
He has been with his partner, Robert Gutterman, for 31 years.
Cohen credits his parents for his dedication to community activism. His father — “the least outdoorsy person you could meet” — served as a treasurer with the Boy Scouts. His mother volunteered with the now-defunct Jewish women’s organization the United Order of True Sisters, and taught him the importance of tzedekah. When she was 90, “she was still standing in front of Walmart with a canister to raise money to send kids to camp,” he said.
“My parents instilled in all of their children a sense of responsibility that we had to do volunteer work no matter what we did in our professional lives. Through listening to them and watching them, I learned a great deal.”
Cohen claims another family: his fellow congregants at Sha’ar Zahav, who he said have helped shape his worldview for nearly 40 years. “We have laughed together, we have struggled together, and we have mourned together.”
Of all of the programs he has nurtured, though, Cohen said his greatest joy has been Sha’ar Zahav’s Journey to Judaism program, which helps non-Jewish partners in interfaith couples learn more about Judaism.
For this weekend at least, the spotlight will be on his work with Hillel.
“Paul has always sought to not focus on the things that divide us in the Jewish community or the larger community,” said Tobin, “but on ways to bring disparate communities together.”