“There are fewer differences than it seems in these career paths,” Cohen said. “Service is what ties it together. Originally it was service to the country, then the students, and now the Jewish community. I’m proud of time in foreign service, but service is what motivates me.”
Cohen replaces Stu Silberman, who left the position after 11 months on the job on July 12, 2016.
Cohen served for five years as the Assistant Secretary of the University for International Affairs at Yale University. He was responsible for the coordination of university activities in Africa, the Middle East, and Europe, working closely with the university’s leadership and representatives from all of Yale’s constituent schools to promote Yale abroad, build partnerships around the world, and to attract students and scholars to Yale. He also advised the Yale Corporation and the President’s Council for International Activities.
Prior to his appointment at Yale, Cohen spent 10 years as a career diplomat in the Foreign Service of the United States Department of State. He served as Deputy Political Counselor in Quito, Ecuador, as a member of the Secretary of State’s Executive Secretariat, as Political-Military Affairs Officer in Sarajevo, Bosnia, and as Staff Assistant to the Ambassador to Egypt.
The hiring of Cohen ended a process that has attracted a lot of community interest since the fall, when a group from Minneapolis and St. Paul encouraged both the Federations of Minneapolis and St. Paul – which is searching for its own CEO after the retirement of Eli Skora – to look at more ways to collaborate. That discussion included considering hiring one CEO to oversee both agencies, although that specific discussion ended in December.
“Jim Cohen is uniquely suited to help us move Minneapolis Jewish Federation forward,” said Howard Zack, Minneapolis Federation’s president-elect and co-chair of the search committee, along with Gabrielle Parish. “His dedication to the Jewish community, strategic perspective, and track record at the Greater Stamford Federation make him the ideal candidate to lead our community into the future.”
Cohen isn’t unfamiliar to the area: his mother-in-law is a St. Paul native and she has relatives in the area.
“We’ve always thought it was a wonderful place to raise kids,” said Cohen, who with his wife Lisa, have a 12-year-old son Jonathan, and 9-year-old daughter Dahlia. “We’re excited to be close to family.”
Minneapolis Jewish Federation president David Orbuch is excited about what Cohen brings to the position.
“His years in the State Department as a diplomat have equipped him to build relationships, forge alliances, and carry out strategic plans,” Orbuch said. “His recent tenure at a Federation means he knows the business – its challenges and its inherent strengths.”
Cohen said that while Stamford is a smaller Jewish community than Minneapolis, the challenges he faced in Stamford were similar.
“The two biggest challenges are the issue of directed giving and reminding people of the value of a federated gift and why it’s important, and forming a stronger, more enduring relationships with our partner agencies,” he said. “If we tackle those two things, all else falls into place.
“I’m not naïve. I know the Federation system has challenges all over, but the pieces are there (in Minneapolis): A Federation with history, a tight-knit Jewish community, Zionists, tikkun olam. The pieces are there; we just need to move them around.”