Who The Folk?! Jim Cohen

We got to chat briefly with Jim Cohen in March after he was named the CEO of the Minneapolis Jewish Federation, but now, we caught up with him as he is settling into the role after moving to town two months ago. Cohen is not the tried-and-true Jewish communal professional lifer. A former diplomat in the State Department and professor at Yale, Cohen is trying to bring stability to a position that hasn’t had it in the past several years. So, just Who The Folk is Jim Cohen?

Are you feeling settled in?

No question.

How have you found the community so far?

Very welcoming. Very desirous of change. Mostly open to new ideas. That’s all pretty positive.

How could you be desirous of change but not open to new ideas?

If you have an idea as to what the change should be and you’re not open to other ideas — but do recognize there needs to be change — I suppose that’s how you square that circle.

What are the changes you think you need to bring in?

I think we need to provide more donor choice to address the directed giving question, and I think Federation has the ability to do that while honoring the spirit of a Federated gift. We need to do a better job tying our donors to the impact their gift has so they understand what we do and how we do it. I think we need to really operate more in the space of providing the community with services only an umbrella organization can do. We do some of that, but there’s a lot of more that we can do and we’re looking at how to do that. And I think we need to be more transparent. I’ve tried already to communicate effectively with the community as to what’s going on. It’s been hard to do with the change of CEO, but that’s very important.

I’ve noticed that with the monthly updates that they are more frequent than they had been previously.

It’s essential because there are people who don’t understand what we do and it’s incumbent on us to make the case. Not only the process but how the money is spent. We owe it to the donors so they understand and I don’t think we’ve done as good a job as we can do. The cover of the last newsletter got a great response. It framed the case that giving to Federation is giving to the community. It means that that you do value all parts of the community that you don’t know very much about. One of the things that I do try to talk with donors and community leaders about is that I understand if there’s an organization in town or a national organization that floats your boat and that’s where you want your biggest gift to be and that’s where your passion is. That’s great. Federation should never tell you that giving to a Jewish organization is a bad thing. But, having said that, without the gift to Federation, the little boats don’t benefit. And the organizations you don’t know about, suffer. I’m starting to talk to major donors and opinion leaders about how to make that balance. That takes time.

Do you think Federation has a relevancy problem?

I think Federation has a relevancy problem with those that don’t understand what Federation does or haven’t caught up with how we do it in 2017. It’s a perception of relevancy problem, and perception is reality. So yes, I do. In my mind, we’re more relevant than ever. Of all the problems the community faces and all the possible challenges and opportunities, they are so disparate. That if you don’t have an umbrella organization and takes a look at 30,000 feet on behalf of the whole community, someone has to do that. I was in a solicitation with our campaign chairs, and the gentlemen told me his father told him of a time where there wasn’t Federation in this town, and it was a bloodbath because two or three large organizations got funded and everyone was out for themselves. It was a disaster. That’s why Federation was established. I’m not suggesting there would be that animosity if we didn’t exist, but the simple fact of the matter is we serve an important purpose, particularly for the organizations who can’t fundraise and market for themselves as effectively as they like. If we ceased to exist, in 10 years we’d be reinvented.

So it a relevancy problem or a messaging problem?

Some is identifying the things it needs to do and do it well. One of the challenges is we do so many things, that we need to better prioritize.

You’ve written that the Federation’s plan is to move to the Barry Family Campus. How much of that move is trying to centralize community functions and how much is that there’s space?

Both. It’s convenient for the community members, but working together makes everyone stronger. In communities where you have that we have success. I was clear that is my ultimate hope. There are things outside of our control, but whatever we do will be in the best interest of the community. I promised a decision by our annual meeting.

Do you find yourself having to undo anything over the past four years when there’s been such limbo in this office?

I have spent and will spend time repairing relationships that suffered as a result of the changeovers and the residual effects of those changeovers. There are bridges that have to be repaired, both with organizations and individuals. I think that’s pretty normal given what has happened. It’s not unique to Minneapolis; anytime there are changes like this there’s residual effects. And yes, I’m having to spend time repairing, not reversing. There’s a difference.

Do donors and agencies seem receptive to the new energy you’re bringing?

Yes. I’ve gotten good feedback. This organization has donors that sense the new energy here and are willing to give us the benefit of the doubt, but they want to see results. It’s not about me. It’s about the organization and putting our best foot forward. I do sense excitement or a willingness to be a part of it.

How much does your career in the diplomatic service help?

Immeasurably. It really does. It’s so cliché, but it’s true: One of the biggest skills that you learn as a diplomat is how to deliver news that people may not want to hear, messages they’d rather not receive, and work with them to craft a way going forward that accommodates both sides. That’s diplomacy. Whether in a marriage, at Federation with a company. That’s the art of the diplomacy. That’s the biggest skill I took from that life into this one. Look, not everyone has to be best friends. Not everyone has to agree. When you look at the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt which was codified in 1979, did every Egyptian wake up the next morning and say they love Israel and Jews? No. Have they violated a single comma or period of that agreement? No. They have followed it to the letter of the law. The message I take is that there has to be a way for people in any community to listen to things they don’t want to hear and come up with something that makes sense for the common good. That really helps a lot.

How different is the Jewish community here compared to what you left in Connecticut?

It’s more cohesive here. I think that it’s tighter knit here. In Stamford, you have an element of people who grew up in Stamford, but it’s really part of the tristate area. Everyone is basically from the same stock. Here in Minneapolis, you have families who have been here for generations. You have people who have gone off to college and moved back. Everyone seems to know each other. I’ve briefed 20 times not to say something to this person because they are related to that person. It’s been immeasurably helpful. But it says a lot how people value their own community. They dynamic of the religious streams vis-à-vis their work with federation is a little different. Stamford was unique in that the majority of our volunteers and donors went to the Orthodox synagogue. Which is unusual in the Federation world. It created a different set of challenges than it does here. I would like to see the Orthodox institutions more involved. And I think there are many areas we can do that. I’m not accustomed to not having that kind of automatic involvement, and in Stamford where I really have to go out and recruit from the reform synagogue to participate in a committee, it’s the opposite here. And here is much more the norm, but it’s still a challenge for me.

With you just starting and Rob Jacobs starting in St. Paul as their CEO, do you see an avenue for increased cooperation?

I hope so. I really do. I think more cooperation is essential, it’s not even preferred; has to happen. There are things happening that are good that we shouldn’t ignore. It’s your legacy is one of the big success stories. Cardozo. We have to build on that, particularly because the next generation of leaders demand it. And they’re right. I would’ve liked to have seen a little more forward thinking during the discussions that took place, but the communities weren’t there yet and you can’t force things. The more success stories will breed additional success. There’s no toll to go to St. Paul. Where I came from you had to pay a toll to cross the river. With younger people, it’s just not as big an issue.

Favorite Jewish Food?

Belly Lox

Favorite Jewish Holiday?


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