Eli Cohn

On pushing the limits of understanding through work, travel and art

Eli Cohn 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

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.

“I find that art like this can be a way of learning to engage seriously with different, often competing worldviews. We do not benefit from living in isolation and refusing to acknowledge the myriad ways that other people look at and find meaning in the world. I love [the photography shop] 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.”

Eli Cohn, MA/MA’15

Excerpt from Eli's article “Art and Identity in Ottoman Palestine”