Cohens Take Reins as Jewish Federation Campaign Co-Chairs

David L. and Rhonda Cohen

Ask Melissa Greenberg, Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s chief development officer, why the organization chose Rhonda and David L. Cohen as its new campaign co-chairs, and she chuckles: “More the question is why they chose to accept our invitation!”

David L. Cohen has an answer to that: “Naomi [Adler] asked.”

He and Rhonda Cohen shared that answer, along with other thoughts about their new gig, in a glass-walled conference room on the 52nd floor of the Comcast building last week. David is Comcast’s senior executive vice president and chief diversity officer. Rhonda was a partner in the law firm of Ballard Spahr LLP until her retirement; she now serves on many civic and nonprofit boards.

The couple, who have been married for 40 years, sat across from each other as the city glittered below, and spoke about their mutual respect and affection for Jewish Federation CEO Adler, who was their main reason for taking on the important fundraising role as campaign co-chairs.  

“Naomi has been a breath of fresh air,” David Cohen said. “She’s been an outstanding leader. She came in not wanting to blow up the world; she wanted to listen and understand and reach out and talk to people. She’s exactly the kind of leader that people like Rhonda and me — who were looking for new leadership and a different approach to [Jewish] Federation — were looking for.”

She was also the first Jewish Federation CEO who reached out to speak with Rhonda Cohen directly rather than simply calling David Cohen.

“We’re anything but millennials, but in the millennial world, you got to be kidding me,” said David Cohen of that old-fashioned approach. “Talk about a disconnection. The notion that you can get to the family by going through the husband … ”

It was a good move, too, because as it turned out, Rhonda Cohen and Adler had a lot to talk about.

“My background is very different from David’s,” said Rhonda Cohen, alluding to her husband’s multigenerational connection with Jewish Federation and synagogue affiliation. “My background is a Yiddish background instead of a synagogue and Hebrew background, and Naomi is the first person who got it.

“She started pointing out posters that had Yiddish on them. It was like, ‘I’m not just looking for the people who go to this synagogue, this country club, who send their kids to this camp.’ [Jewish] Federation is big enough to have its arms around someone who went to Camp Boiberik instead of Camp Ramah.”

That welcoming attitude not only impressed Rhonda Cohen, but it represents an approach to Jewish Federation engagement that deeply resonates for David Cohen, who feels the agency lost its way for a while as it struggled to engage multiple generations.

“It wasn’t that welcoming a place for people who hadn’t been involved forever,” he said, which is why both he and Rhonda Cohen like the fact that the campaign’s focus is on more than getting money; it involves educating people and creating new stakeholders by telling them what Jewish Federation is really all about.

“Twenty years ago, you say,  ‘Federation’ and people are thinking support for Israel,” David Cohen said, “and there is this sense among too many in the Jewish community that there aren’t a lot of poor Jews living in Philadelphia, that there aren’t hunger issues and social service issues and education issues within this community.”

It’s time, he said, for new generations of people to understand the very real problems in the Jewish community locally, and to have a concrete way to engage to make things better.

“Through those engagements, you will build an audience to be able to tell the story of Jewish Federation, to be able to remind people that this is not just about raising money in our community to send to Israel,” he said. “Israel needs financial support from the United States. But to educate people about the real needs — the poverty needs, the hunger needs and the educational needs and the social service needs — that exist for lower-income Jewish citizens of our community is to use the campaign … to reshape the story of [Jewish] Federation in a way that I think is more engaging to a millennial population.”

David Cohen said he hesitated to generalize about an entire generation, but he suspected millennials might be less interested in an organization that’s sending money to Israel than in an organization involved in an effort to lift up vulnerable segments of the local Jewish population. Active, involved philanthropy is what appeals to that generation.

“There’s a bit of a chicken and egg,” David Cohen said. “How do you get millennials to want to be engaged? You have to make sure they understand what [Jewish] Federation is all about. But it’s a different sell and ask to say, ‘Did you know that [Jewish] Federation does X and why don’t you get involved?’ as opposed to ‘Did you know that [Jewish] Federation does X and why don’t you write a check?’ The first step is to engage, get people connected and allow people to understand.”

Which is why he and Rhonda Cohen both appreciated Jewish Federation’s Stand Against Hate rally at Independence Hall and the decision to have Super Sunday at the Jewish Relief Agency’s warehouse.

“[Having Super Sunday at JRA] was an attempt to convert Super Sunday into something other than a massive telethon,” David Cohen said. “As co-chairs of the campaign, we’re not trying to say we don’t want to raise money — it’s the central element of the campaign — but the best way to raise money … is to engage more people and to educate more people about what [Jewish] Federation stands for. In the end, you will raise significantly more money by doing that rather than fixating on every activity has to involve the writing of a check.”

“Especially with the younger generation,” Rhonda Cohen added, “they’re not going to be able to write big checks now. But if you get them engaged now, it’s a long-term play.”

The Cohens clearly have complementary skills and interests that make them ideal co-chairs — and this is the first time the campaign has been chaired by a married couple.

“Because they’re who they both are,” Greenberg said, “we couldn’t have one or the other.”

The couple leads such busy lives, working on the campaign together will afford them more quality time.

“I do enjoy working together, and it sends a message,” Rhonda Cohen said. “Maybe we get twice the bang for the buck by doing it together.”

David Cohen feels having a husband and wife as co-chairs is consistent with the campaign’s goals.

As for what they each bring to the effort, he said, “She brings way more patience. She’s way nicer than I am. … Everybody likes Rhonda. When you’re trying to engage people, having someone who everyone likes is good. I think everyone respects me, but that’s different than liking me.”

“But,” Rhonda Cohen added, “he has a better Rolodex in terms of inviting people to events, and if he signs the letter, they’ll come.”

Greenberg feels the Cohens — “among the top civic and philanthropic leaders in not just Philadelphia, but certainly nationally” — impart a sense of gravitas to the campaign. She also knows they’re committed.

“When they both take on these kinds of roles, they take it very, very seriously,” Greenberg said. “They will provide their vision and leadership for the future of our community and they’ll be very thoughtful with us about where we are right now and how we can build and grow together.

“While they have been involved with us for a very long time, they bring a new perspective to how we are connecting with people.”

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