Growing up, Chari Cohen went to Friday night and High Holiday services with her family. She kept kosher. She even had a bat mitzvah in a Conservative/Orthodox synagogue in Staten Island, New York (though she was not allowed to read from the Torah or celebrate on Saturday).
Through that deep Jewish upbringing, one value spoke to her the most loudly.
“We are commanded to repair the world and make it a better place for everyone,” she said.
Since 1999, Cohen has done that. That was the year when the then-24-year-old got an internship at the Hepatitis B Foundation, the world’s only organization dedicated solely to fighting Hepatitis B.
A quarter-century later, Cohen is the president of the Doylestown-based organization. She took over in July 2022 after spending almost five years as vice president. For the Shir Ami congregant, it’s a continuation of her life’s work up to this point (she’s only 49).
The Newtown resident does not have a specific connection to the disease. Her commitment to fighting it does not come from some family or personal story. She just got an internship there while working toward her master’s in public health at Temple University. And she found it to be a worthwhile cause.
“The cofounders of the organization (Joan and Tim Block) led the organization with 100% commitment,” Cohen said. “Their goal is to cure Hepatitis B and help 300 million people live better lives. They instilled that in me and everyone else who works there.”
Three hundred million people have chronic Hepatitis B infection, according to Cohen. (That estimate is backed up by the World Health Organization’s estimate.) Since Hepatitis B inflames the liver, the risk of liver cancer in infected patients is between 15 and 50%. It’s “one of the leading causes of death worldwide,” said Cohen.
At the same time, it’s preventable, according to Cohen. There’s a vaccine. There’s also deep knowledge of how it’s transmitted. People get infected through blood-to-blood or sexual contact. Most cases are passed down from mother to child due to the blood exchange during childbirth. Therefore, it just keeps going through generations in parts of the world that don’t have access to vaccines. The disease is most often found in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
“Generations can be impacted if you don’t have vaccines,” Cohen said. “It impacts those regions because that’s where the ancient populations are.”
The Hepatitis B Foundation has a two-part mission, according to its president. Part one is about finding a cure. The foundation funds a team of 60 scientists who work in labs to research the disease. Part two focuses on public health and advocacy. That’s the side that Cohen has always worked on.
Hepb.org is accessible in 17 languages, according to Cohen. It receives 4 million visits per year. The organization offers a patient help line and free screenings, vaccines and linkages to local care. Since 2012, it has screened more than 6,000 people in the Philadelphia area and helped 85-90% of them find care.
When Cohen got her internship, about 450 million people worldwide had Hepatitis B.
“The vaccine in the U.S. and globally has made an impact. We’ve seen tremendous progress,” she said.
But there are still 1 million new cases a year.
“I feel compelled to stay until I see the job done. There is a global movement to eliminate Hepatitis B,” Cohen said. “I have the privilege to work for an organization that is saving lives every day, and I don’t feel ready to stop. It’s hard to leave when there’s still so much work to be done.”
While there’s no cure, the vaccines could prevent every new case and treatments could prevent most people from dying, according to Cohen.
“Most people don’t get tested and treated. You have these tools that aren’t being used,” she said.
Cohen and her husband, Paul Cohen, moved from Manhattan to Philadelphia when Cohen got into Temple for her master’s program. Then in 1998, the couple moved to Bucks County and joined Temple Beth El in Yardley, a Conservative synagogue. Seven years later, they joined Shir Ami, a Reform temple.
The couple was looking for a synagogue that was aligned with their focus on “service as leading our Jewish identity,” Cohen said. Cohen was not necessarily seeking out Reform Judaism, but she found it to be a natural fit.
“Once I learned more about Reform Judaism and Shir Ami, we were already there. It felt very comfortable to me,” she said.