I recently sat down with Jane and Harvey Cohen to discuss their experiences growing up and becoming active participants in Cincinnati’s Jewish community. In fact, each credits the other as an influence for getting involved. Their new legacy gift, coordinated through the Jewish Federation of Cincinnati’s Create Your Jewish Legacy program, will be allocated to two organizations, Congregation Etz Chaim and the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC). They decided to start their legacy giving now, carefully allocated, over the next six years instead of the traditional post-life commitment. –David Harris
Q: What was it like for you growing up?
Harvey: I’m from the very small Jewish community of Hamilton, just north of Cincinnati. There’s a lot of love in that town and all the families were incredibly close. I went to Sunday school, Hebrew school, and weekly services at Beth Israel Synagogue up until college. Growing up at Beth Israel and experiencing the Jewish community of a small Midwestern town was incredibly important to me and has shaped who I am today.
Jane: I grew up in Newton Massachusetts, where there was a strong sense of Jewish community. Newton is about a third Jewish, a third Italian, and a third Irish. When I was 14, we moved to Potomac and then Bethesda, Maryland. My mother grew up at an Orthodox shul and my father grew up in a household where exploring Judaism was discouraged.
Q: Was tzedakah, giving to charity, a part of your childhood? Can you remember the first time you heard about tzedakah or witnessed a charitable act?
Jane: In Sunday school we had the JNF [Jewish National Fund] boxes, but I don’t recall tzedakah much growing up. After my father died, however, I discovered that he was far more generous than I ever realized. I found out that whenever charity requests came in the mail, he would give a little bit of money. After learning this, I resolved to do that also.
Harvey: My father was always fundraising and was a role model for me. I remember distinctly on the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, all the Jewish businessmen in Hamilton—with the help of non-Jews—walked out their doors and started fundraising from everyone and raised twenty thousand dollars by lunch!
Q: Has anyone throughout your life had a major influence on your giving?
Jane: My gift is really inspired by my husband. It's through his inspiration and his urging that we've made this gift [through Create Your Jewish Legacy to Congregation Etz Chaim and JCRC]. When I was involved with B’nai Tzedek [now Etz Chaim], I felt that I was influenced by my mother’s father, my maternal grandfather. He was very involved in his shul.
Harvey: It was very much a joint decision between Jane and me. She might say that she followed my lead, but we discussed it quite a bit because it's our estate. It was that important to us to give money to the community.
Q: How did you become involved in JCRC and B’nai Tzedek, now Etz Chaim, and why are these organizations important to you?
Harvey: JCRC immediately resonated with me, and I was impressed by the organization’s commitment and knowledge of the social and political issues facing Jews right now in society. JCRC developed a program locally called Leaders in Light, for which JCRC brings in important influencers in the community and educates them on anti-hate, not just antisemitism. I support this program because it is breaking down barriers one person at a time. A little exposure and education go a long way.
Jane: I found this tiny little congregation called B’nai Tzedek where everyone knew each other, and I thought we would like it because it was like Harvey’s Hamilton shul. We met at the old JCC. Then, when the JCC’s building was being sold, B’nai Tzedek had to move out. We had to do something, and I volunteered to go to a meeting that I thought was about the design of the new building. I brought Harvey with me, and soon it became obvious that it was about fundraising for the building. So, I volunteered to lead the building campaign and I became very involved.
Q: Is there anything you would like your grandchildren and great-grandchildren to know about your life and involvement in the Jewish community?
Jane: I was very proud of the work I did at the Federation and what I did at B’nai Tzedek. I absolutely adored being in Jewish communal service and working in the Jewish community. It’s important to have aspects of Jewish and communal involvement, whether it’s through a synagogue or other organizations, because they all need help and they all need volunteers. And I hope my kids and grandkids and later generations are involved to make sure Jewish life is profound and safe.
Q: How does leaving a legacy gift to the Jewish community make a difference?
Harvey: We need strong, viable Jewish institutions for our children, grandchildren, and others’ children and grandchildren, and it doesn't happen without some money. We want these organizations to continue to exist and our gift will help do that. I was President of B’nai Tzedek, and then involved in Cedar Village and JCRC, and that helped open my eyes to the value of organized Jewish communal organizations and how important it is to support them. Legacy giving is a wonderful aspect of giving.
And we are actually giving our legacy gift now. We switched it to be given during our lifetime instead of after death. It turned out to be advantageous for us to start the gift at the end of last year. Our gift will be given over the next six years. We found a way to take advantage of qualified tax deductions above the standard deduction and see our dollars at work today for our community.
Q: What is a key piece of wisdom that you would want your future great-great-grandchildren to remember about you
Harvey: Since I’m a lawyer, I’d like them to think that doing justice involves doing justice in the Jewish community as well as the wider community. My father had a very strong sense of justice, and through his community involvement, both secular and Jewish, he furthered those goals. I would like my descendants to pursue justice.
Q: How does your legacy commitment help pass down your values to your children and grandchildren?
Harvey: I hope we are setting an example for our kids of giving with humility. I hope that they respect us for this and continue it. I know they all have strong Jewish identities, and I think they all recognize what it takes to have a Jewish community to be part of and to make sure Jewish people are safe. You must lead by example, and I would hope that we continue to be examples for our kids. We can be an example of what we hope they would do one day, maybe even soon.
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