Florence Cohen, 97, Civil Rights Activist, Social Reformer

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The pioneering civil rights champion put her tireless crusade for social justice into action as a schoolteacher and chief of staff for her late husband, Philadelphia City Councilman David Cohen.

Florence Cohen, a pioneering civil rights champion whose dedication to Jewish communal concerns and the State of Israel took important positions in her lifelong, tireless crusade for social justice, died Jan. 10.
 
A native of New York, the Cherry Hill, N.J., resident and former longtime Philadelphian, was 97.
 
In her role as chief of staff for her late husband, Philadelphia City Councilman David Cohen — which spanned two decades beginning in 1980 — she got the opportunity to put her social agenda into action. 
 
Her husband was prominently known for his liberal views and together, the two were known as quite a formidable couple in the areas of justice and social reform.
 
Their son, state Rep. Mark Cohen, recalls an activist mom who, while serving as his dad’s chief of staff, drew up a resolution praising the late Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s actions in bombing Iraq’s nuclear facility in 1981.
 
She showed him and his siblings “the importance of hard work, of involvement, of sticking to your beliefs,” he said. “She used to say that you work until you get your project done, no matter the time.”
 
Fighting for the underdog took top spot in her campaigns for doing the right thing.
 
A grass-roots activist, she was a longtime president of the Ogontz Area Neighbors Association, which she co-founded in 1959.
 
Other activities included being director of projects for the Pennsylvania Program for Women and Girl Offenders, and chair of the New Democratic Coalition, a role she served for several years starting in 1969.
 
And while her husband attended the infamously embattled 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, where street protests about the Vietnam War almost drowned out the process of presidential nomination proceedings inside the convention center, she was outside participating in a peace march.
 
But she also knew evil must be met with force: In 1938, Cohen took part in a rally organized by  the American Jewish Congress — a group with which she was active — beseeching U.S. officials to go to war with Nazi Grmany. Twenty-five years later, she and her husband asked the nation to declare war on social injustice and racism, taking part in the 1963 March on Washington.
 
The need for education was also a major concern for Cohen, who completed a master’s in education from the University of Pennsylvania after attaining an economics degree from George Washington University. 
 
In the ’60s, she worked to defeat zoning changes that adversely affected impoverished students.
 
“She helped persuade the School Board of Philadelphia of the importance and effectiveness of school integration when they were drawing school boundaries,” her son said, adding that his mom was “a woman ahead of her time.”
 
“She was a woman of great courage. She showed it is possible to fight City Hall.”
 
 She was also a force to be reckoned with in helping establish what would become the Community College of Philadelphia, where she taught after years as a social studies teacher in the Philadelphia school system.
 
She never got too old for taking on — and succeeding at — challenges. In her 90s, she became a visual artist and published poet. But, of course, activism continued to figure among her favorite activities: Cohen founded a local chapter of Grannies for Peace while ensconced in a Center City retirement complex. 
 
“Mom had a wonderful role model,” said daughter Judy Minches, a journalist, referencing her own great-grandmother Mary Zabludofsky, Florence’s grandmother.
 
When Florence’s mother died at a young age, Mary “is the woman who raised my mom, who my mom said was the most influential of her life.”
 
Florence’s grandmother “had to come up with ways to care for her family, and my mother learned a lot from her about responsibility and community.”
 
And family, added Minches, praising her mother. “She was a great listener, great at giving guidance, a tender woman who taught me great life lessons.”
 
One of those lessons was something Florence Cohen practiced in both the public and private worlds. “She treated everyone respectfully,” her daughter said.
 
In addition to her son Mark and daughter Judy, she is survived by a daughter, Sherrie; a son, Judge Denis; and six grandchildren.
 
Donations in her honor may be sent to Bread and Roses Community Fund, 1315 Walnut St., Suite 1300, Philadelphia, Pa. 19107. 

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