On pushing the limits of understanding through work, travel and art
Eli Cohn, MA/MA’15, Project Director
South Peninsula Jewish Teen Foundations, Jewish Federation of San Francisco
It's been a year since Eli Cohn MA/MA’15 took up the role of project director in the South Peninsula region for Jewish Teen Foundations, a program of the Jewish Federation of San Francisco. Going into a new location and new job, Eli was worried but willing to challenge himself and his worldview, even if that meant moving out of his comfort zone.
“There was certainly concern on various fronts, including the basic anxiety of finding a job following graduation. I had concerns about moving all the way across the country from Boston to San Francisco to a place where I didn't know many people,” says Eli. “And I questioned whether some aspects of the job itself, whether philanthropy and grant-making are really the best ways to engage curious youth, and if that's what I wanted to be doing.”
A year into the work, Eli is convinced of the value of teaching teens about philanthropy in this unique program and especially enjoys the deeper-level relationships he's able to develop with the program's Leadership Council, a small group of second-year students, and the educational opportunities that these enable.
“It's a great program, and now after a year, I can see the impact it has on teens, particularly on teens who aren't otherwise involved in the Jewish community. It's great to hear stories from people who participated in the program years ago and now do something because of the values they learned in the program,” he says.
Eli's own values have been shaped by his parents and their dedication to Judaism, their work in the Jewish community, and the large Reform synagogue community in Minneapolis-St. Paul where he grew up and in which he was an active member. “I was happily immersed in summer camps and youth groups. I even liked Hebrew school,” he recalls, laughing.
When Eli was in his last year at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, he decided to spend a year in Israel with Project OTZMA, a Jewish Federations of North America project which is no longer in operation.
That was a turning point for Eli. “It really hit me that the Jewish involvement that had always been central to my identity could also be what I did professionally.”
The year in Israel with OTZMA ignited new passions in Eli. “During this year I developed a much deeper relationship with Israel and became interested in Israel education and how we teach diaspora Jews to engage with Israel,” says Eli.
He also met two Hornstein Program students. “As I heard them describe the program I remember feeling certain that Hornstein would be a part of my future plans.”
Eli's journey so far has taken him from the place of his upbringing in the Twin Cities to Portland, Oregon, then to Wisconsin, then to Israel, then to Boston, Massachusetts to attend the Hornstein Program, and now to San Francisco, California where he lives with fiancé, Cheyenne Postell.
When Eli isn't building relationships and professional leadership skills with his young board of philanthropists, he's engaging with art. “I love art as an amateur enthusiast. I don't have any formal training in art but it is something that I love and feel very attached to,” he says.
He recommends traveling because of the opportunity it presents to learn about different worldviews and customs. He believes art works in much the same way, helping to “promote understanding by drawing on traditions and themes that predate conflict between people.”
“Art and Identity in Ottoman Palestine” is Eli's recent article about his experience of art and photography at the photography shop, Photo Elia, in Jerusalem. “I love Photo Elia, because every time I leave there I have a new picture that tells a different story. And with every new story I push the limits of the way I live and see the world around me.”
In His Own Words: An Interview with Eli Cohn
I believe I have always been headed for a career as a Jewish educator, but it took me awhile to realize it. Growing up in Minneapolis-St.Paul, I was happily immersed in summer camps and youth groups. I even liked Hebrew school! [Laughs.]
My family was very involved in a large Reform synagogue and both my parents have spent time as Jewish professionals in various capacities. College was no different. I found myself in leadership positions in the campus Jewish community and at the epicenter of the founding of the Greater Portland Hillel. Still, I thought of my Jewish activities as merely something I did and not as a potential career.
At the beginning of my senior year as an undergraduate at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, I decided to spend a year in Israel after graduation. Only then did it really hit me that the Jewish involvement that had always been central to my identity could also be what I did professionally. I spent the summer before Israel working at Camp Interlaken JCC in Wisconsin, and I viewed that as my first experience working in the Jewish community outside of being a religious school teacher.
I spent the year in Israel with Project OTZMA, a wonderful program which ignited new passions in me. During this year I developed a much deeper relationship with Israel and became interested in Israel education and how we teach diaspora Jews to engage with Israel.
During this year I also met two Hornstein students who introduced me to the Hornstein Program. As I heard them describe the program I remember feeling certain that Hornstein would be a part of my future plans.
I have moved a lot for different opportunities. From home in the Twin Cities, I moved to Portland, Oregon, to Wisconsin, to Israel, to Boston, and now to San Francisco. I feel I am constantly looking for new opportunities to learn and grow in different environments.
I think it's important to experience new communities. There's always something to learn from the way that people in different places do things, and that goes for microcultures within countries or cities, too. We live in a time when we have easy access to the world in ways people in the past didn't, and I think that's something to take advantage of.
I feel a strong connection to Minneapolis and to the Midwest in general. I still feel like I have a lot of that Midwest sensibility and I'm drawn to that community in a different kind of way than I am to other places. I don't know that I'll ever live in Minneapolis again but I do feel a very strong attachment to it.
The Jewish community is bigger than most people think it is. I grew up at one of the largest Reform synagogues in the country so I have a really big community in that sense. Growing up, I was very active in the synagogue community and had many friends. Lots of us went to summer camp, mostly to Wisconsin. NFTY (North American Federation of Temple Youth) and USY (United Synagogue Youth) were very popular.
No question, my family. Both my immediate and extended families are very involved in Jewish life. They express their Judaism in myriad ways, and we all accept each other for who we are. I grew up watching many different forms of Jewish expression, and I had many role models to emulate in my family. My parents have both worked in the Jewish community, and this, no doubt, impacted my Jewish identity to a great deal.
I have been privileged to work and learn with many great leaders on my journey so far. From my own family and teachers, to those I teach now, I see leadership that comes in many shapes and sizes. When I think of the leaders I most admire, the one thing that ties them together is an ability to listen well. Exceptional leaders have the ability to really hear the people around them.
In terms of travel, the time I've spent in Israel has had the greatest impression on my Jewish identity. I went to Israel for the first time when I was 17 through the Alexander Muss High School in Israel. Since then I have been back as a program participant, trip leader and for personal trips. On OTZMA, something deeper woke inside me and I learned to see new ways that I, as a Jew, can be in relationship with Israel. Showing Israel to people for the first time as a Birthright staff member is incredibly rewarding. Israel is filled with highs and lows for myself and for the Jewish people as a whole, and I have come to embrace the enormous responsibility that Israel places on us to be our best selves.
I have also been fortunate to work in pluralistic settings that have given me new understandings of Judaism. Brandeis Hillel and the BIMA/Genesis program for teens at Brandeis University are both special places. To be successful, I think we have to learn to interact with people who are vastly different from ourselves and who have different worldviews. This has pushed me to understand my own sense of self as a Jew and how that relates to broader elements of Jewish society.
That was an idea that had been percolating for a few years. I had some time and decided writing would be a good way for me to continue to engage with Israel and to continue to engage intellectually in a way I don't get to very often.
I'm hoping to have something published every two to four weeks.
I love art as an amateur enthusiast. I don't have any formal training in art but it is something that I love and feel very attached to.
I work for the Jewish Federation of San Francisco and run a program here called Jewish Teen Foundations, a program organized to teach teens about philanthropy and how boards work. We have three of these in different regions. I am the project director for the South Peninsula region. The board consists of 25 teenagers who do a very large-scale philanthropy project during the year. We have a retreat with them in the fall at which they write a mission statement for the year. We then have seven more meetings with them throughout the year where we teach them about philanthropy, nonprofits, federations and the Jewish values that inform good philanthropy and Jewish philanthropy in particular. Then they select a few organizations that are potential grantees based on our mission statement. They do all of their own fund-raising and at the end of the year, we narrow down our list and decide who will receive grants. The grant fund typically ranges from $50,000 - $75,000 a year and is usually awarded to between six and eight organizations.
That's the overall process for the year-long board philanthropy program. On a slightly smaller level is a second-year group of teens on the board that's called the Leadership Council. They're the ones who run the board meetings and help create a lot of the programming content. I meet with this group regularly. We work on leadership development and creating and delivering the program for the rest of the board.
I especially like to work with the Leadership Council team. It's a smaller group that I get to know and form relationships with during the year. Because we meet regularly, I have the chance to see them grow as individuals and as a group. That's super valuable to me. I'm more interested in that process and in the growth than I am in the product of fund-raising and grant-making. No doubt, these are great. But for me it should not be the emphasis of the education.
Philanthropy is challenging for me because it was never a focus of mine or something I've practiced as an educator. There's been a lot for me to learn in terms of what philanthropy is, what our program values in terms of philanthropy, and basic information about grant-making and nonprofits. That philanthropic and grant-making pieces were very new to me.
I felt ready for the job after graduation because I felt strongly rooted as an educator and have some education in philanthropy having taken Jewish Fundraising and Philanthropy
with Professor Mersky. That provided me with a solid background. I felt ready, but you know, it's just one of those things you have to expect from a new position. There's going to be things you need to learn and adjust to and the philanthropy piece was just one of those things for me.
Yeah, absolutely. My background is in Israel education so philanthropy was definitely a new piece and a new challenge.
There was certainly concern on various fronts, including the basic anxiety of finding a job following graduation. I had concerns about moving all the way across the country from Boston to San Francisco to a place where I didn't know many people.
And I questioned whether some aspects of the job itself, whether philanthropy and grant-making are really the best way to engage curious youth, and if that's what I wanted to be doing. It's not that grant-making and fund-raising are not great skills to have, but I wasn't convinced that this was the most valuable investment of our time and resources slated for youth education. I wondered if something other than money would be a better topic in which to engage our youth.
Those were my concerns going into the program. It's a great program and now after a year I can see the impact it has on teens, particularly on teens who aren't otherwise involved in the Jewish community. It's great to hear stories from people who participated in the program years ago and now do something because of the values they learned in the program. For example, you hear about someone who is the treasurer for their Hillel at college because they participated in Teen Foundations and that aspect of the Teen Foundations experience translated for them to an interest in doing something Jewish in college. Those are really cool stories to hear.
Moving to the city is something you grow accustomed to. I was not at all familiar with San Francisco before moving here but I'm getting used to it. After a few months, I began to get a sense of the place and recently, it's started to feel like home. This adjustment takes time. It's a transition and takes commitment, but it's nice when everything starts to come together.
We found a place to live that's between everything so that the commute is not so bad. Commuting in California is not great, regardless of where you are.
It is worse than Boston in a lot of ways. It takes a long time to get around here. I miss I-95! [Laughs.] I spend about 45 minutes to an hour to go about 15-20 miles. A train into the city doesn't take too long.
Yeah. We got engaged last week!
Yeah, Cheyenne works in theater, in ticketing, and shortly after we moved out here she got a job as a box office manager of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.
Yeah, we were ready to move somewhere. While I was feeling pretty good in Boston, Cheyenne is from Springfield, Massachusetts, went to school in Boston… she'd lived in Massachusetts her whole life and was ready to try something new. We were both ready to move and wanted to go somewhere which would support both her desire to work in theater and mine to work as a Jewish educator. Overall, we're happy here in San Francisco and really like being in California.
I haven't been at it this long so I feel like I still need advice myself! That being said, I would tell them to continue to work hard to find fulfillment. Work transitions are challenging and sometimes it can take a long time to feel comfortable in a new role. Whether you find the perfect job or not, whether you feel fulfilled by work or not, be the kind of person who takes pride in personal growth and conquering new challenges.
This interview with Eli was published in the Hornstein Program's Impact Newsletter, July 2016. If you would like to quote any part of this conversation, please attribute content to the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program at Brandeis University and link to this page. All rights reserved.