Ben Cohen, the 22-year-old graduate of Pomona College, will be leaving in September on a Fulbright scholarship to do research in the Ukraine.
As a little boy, Ben Cohen liked to study maps.
His mother would peak into his room and see him on the floor, engrossed in one of those old Rand McNally maps almost as big as he was, perhaps contemplating places he’d like to visit one day.
It turned out to be hint of what was to come for Cohen, the 22-year-old graduate of Pomona College — about an hour outside Los Angeles — who’ll be leaving in September on a Fulbright scholarship to do research in the Ukraine.
He’ll be analyzing the role of the Jewish population amid all the turmoil there. Having been there in 2013, it will be the continuation of a pursuit that’s become personally meaningful to the Moorestown, N.J. native.
“I’m curious to see what role Jews are playing in Ukrainian politics today,” said Cohen, in the midst of a camping trip to Glacier National Park with friends. “My great-great-grandparents emigrated to the U.S. from the Ukraine during the pogroms.
“I began to study Russian at Pomona four years ago on a whim. I thought, ‘This looks interesting.’ I ended up falling completely in love with the language and also made the discovery this might be a way for me to explore my family history a little more deeply.”
That resulted in him traveling to Kiev — as well as Berdychiv, where his great-great-grandmother lived — along with Lithuania and St. Petersburg, Russia, where he became further enamored with the culture and the people. At the same time, he realized how drastically the Ukrainian Jewish community — which once was believed to have numbered in the hundreds of thousands — had diminished.
“Berdychiv used to be a huge hub of cultural religious activity for the Jewish population in the Ukraine,” explained Cohen, who attended Temple Sinai in Cinnaminson through his Bar Mitzvah and confirmation. “It was decimated in World War II but within a day’s trip from Kiev.
“I went there just to walk around and see the city. I saw the old Jewish cemetery that was 400 to 500 years old was really run-down and not maintained. It was incredibly moving to see hundreds of years of Jewish history in that cemetery.
“That’s when I realized this history is living. It’s real, and it’s part of who I am and who my family is.”
Three years later he’s on the verge of returning, having received a Fulbright, the grant named in honor of the late Arkansas Sen. J. William Fulbright. The longtime chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations was largely responsible for instituting a cultural and academic exchange program with other countries, sharing knowledge in business, science, the arts and education.
Today, more than 8,000 grants to more than 160 countries are handed out annually.
But it’s not like you can just raise your hand to say you’d like one. In fact, the process, which began last summer and required painstaking detail, took close to four months to complete.
“It’s a very expansive application process,” said Cohen, who’ll spend much of this summer learning Ukrainian, which differs considerably from Russian, though there’s about a 60 percent carryover between languages. “I began working on my application last summer.
“I started formulating ideas and sending emails to people I thought would be able to help. At my school, they have a fellowship director who you work with to design a project for a Fulbright grant.
“The application primarily involves a two-page grant proposal where you lay everything out. Why you want to do it. Why it’s important. How you’re gonna do it and where. You try to explain why the State Department should give you this money.
“Then there’s a one-page personal statement where you introduce yourself. You also need three faculty recommendation letters and have to go through an interview on campus, where they have a specially formed committee.”
Then came the waiting period, which lasted until May. That’s after his application was first approved by an American panel, before being sent on to the country of choice. In Cohen’s case, the Fulbright office in Kiev reviewed and ultimately approved it.
Now all he has to do is secure his own transportation in Kiev, find an apartment and make all the arrangements necessary to spend nine months in a land going through tumultuous times.
Yet Cohen can’t wait.
“I never imagined when I was there in 2013 I’d go back on a Fulbright,” said the kid who chose Pomona because he was intrigued by the idea being part of a five-school Southern California consortium — along with Claremont McKenna College, Scripps College, Pitzer College and Harvey Mudd College — where students can attend classes interchangeably. “After I left, I followed the news and realized the Ukraine was in a really precarious position.
“People don’t really understand what’s going on. When I tell people I’m going there, they often say, ‘You’re going to Russia.’ I say, ‘Not so fast.’
“But because I’ve been there and have a connection and speak Russian, I felt a Fulbright grant would be good opportunity for me to be part of this conversation.
“I get a monthly stipend, the amount depending upon the country. My grant’s on the smaller side because the cost of living in the Ukraine is less. It’s one lump sum. I find an apartment, get a plane ticket, everything.”
“I’m incredibly proud,” said his mother, pediatrician Debra Weissbach, who expects that she and her husband, gastroenterologist Neil Cohen, will visit Ben in November. “I know how desperately he wanted it.
“It was a huge amount of paperwork, but we had nothing to do with any of that. I’d have to say his path comes from within. When Ben was a 3-year-old, I’d walk past his bedroom and he’d be sitting on the floor reading maps.
“He seemed to have this fascination for the world.”
That never changed, which is why a few months from now Cohen will embark on the experience of a lifetime.
“I’ll get off the plane, and hopefully my apartment will be secured by then,” he said, admitting that the thing he’ll miss most over there is good coffee. “Then I’ll show up, get the key and start living.”