Cohn Family’s $50 Million Bequest Is Brandeis’ Largest Gift Ever

Rosaline and Marcia Cohn (at left), with then institutional advancement SVP Nancy Winship, P'10, P'13.
Rosaline and Marcia Cohn (at left), with then institutional advancement SVP Nancy Winship, P'10, P'13.

In June, Brandeis announced its receipt of a $50 million bequest from the estate of Chicago philanthropists Rosaline and Marcia Cohn. It is the largest single gift in Brandeis’ 69-year history.

In accordance with the Cohns’ wishes, the Jacob and Rosaline Cohn Endowed Scholarship and Fellowship Fund will provide financial aid each year for hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students who, in the words of Rosaline Cohn, will help solve the “problems and conditions of today and tomorrow.”

“For current and future Brandeis students, this gift will be life-changing and will, as Mrs. Cohn envisioned, enable them to help make the world a better place,” says President Ron Liebowitz.

Jacob and Rosaline Cohn’s relationship with Brandeis began in 1951, when they gave $100 to the 3-year-old university. Fifteen years later, in response to a solicitation letter from Brandeis’ founding president, Abram Sachar, Mrs. Cohn returned a pledge card on which she checked off “considering the establishment of” and, in perfect handwriting, added “something” to describe the nature of the gift.

“If Mrs. Cohn intended to accomplish ‘something,’ she has succeeded in an extraordinary way that will benefit students for generations to come,” says Liebowitz.

The president notes it’s striking that no one in the Cohn family was a Brandeis alum or faculty member, or had any formal connection to the university. “Like many generous philanthropic families, the Cohns were inspired by the very idea of Brandeis, a university founded by the Jewish community to be open to all students of talent, reflecting the Jewish values of reverence for academic excellence and dedication to using one’s talents to improve the world. For that, we are profoundly grateful,” Liebowitz says.

In the mid-1970s, with a gift of $32,600, Mrs. Cohn established the Cohn Fund as a memorial to her husband, who died in 1968. She wrote to then-Brandeis President Marver Bernstein that she wanted the scholarships it created to support students in the social sciences and other academic disciplines that “hold promise for ameliorating the problems and conditions of today and tomorrow.”

Throughout her life, Mrs. Cohn met and corresponded with many Brandeis leaders; attended university-organized events in Chicago; visited campus for Commencements and other special events; and built enduring relationships with senior administrators, faculty and staff. Her daughter, Marcia, often accompanied her to Brandeis events.

President Emeritus Jehuda Reinharz, PhD’72, who led Brandeis from 1994-2010, played a central role in creating the bequest agreement with Mrs. Cohn in 2010 that ultimately led to the $50 million gift. Reinharz became friendly with Mrs. Cohn during his time as provost (1991-94), and the relationship grew when he became president.

Jacob Cohn was a 19-year-old immigrant from Lithuania when he established the Continental Coffee Co. in Chicago in 1915. He sold coffee, tea and cocoa by horse and wagon to local restaurants and cafeterias, eventually building the company into a national distributor of beverages and food. In 1988, the company was sold to Sysco Corp.

When Mrs. Cohn died in 2010 at age 97, she left her daughter her entire estate. The estate of Marcia Cohn, who died in 2015, maintained the same beneficiaries as her mother’s.