It was eminently fitting that Shomrei Torah of Fair Lawn’s annual dinner, a hybrid event that marked a transition from COVID-19 protocol to normalcy, honored a couple who served during perhaps the greatest transitional period in the shul’s history, Jeff and Carol Cohen. Both held leadership positions, Carol as sisterhood president followed by Jeff as shul president several years later. Jeff was at the helm during a momentous period from August 2017 to July 2020, which will be detailed later. First though, the dinner.
It took place on Sunday evening, June 6, and was unique in that it involved both live and remote options. The presentation, which was held inside the sanctuary, was also live-streamed for those who felt more comfortable participating from home. Logistically, the preparation was more challenging than usual, but went off smoothly, thanks to event chairs Ari Ashkenas, Rachel Krich and Ari Mayefsky. Following the presentation, it was off to the outdoor tents, dubbed “Shomrei Gardens.” The 60×30 feet grassy space offered an intimacy and charm that could not be replicated indoors. The area is enclosed with a tall white fence, thanks to the generous donation by Miri and Daniel Stokar and family, and is adjacent to the tents in the parking lot—5,000 square feet in all for those who wish to rent either space for their own simcha.
Dinner was served in self-contained packages, followed by a dessert buffet. Those involved in the festivities from home participated as well, having picked up their meals earlier in the day. Though the format departed from the norm, the sentiment followed tradition, honoring a couple who had made a profound impact on the shul that will last for years to come. Also being honored, most appropriately, were two committees whose members had made such an impact over the past 15 months. The medical committee, which included Adam Karp, Daniel Krich, Rachelle Schwarz and Ettie Sher, provided crucial advice throughout the pandemic. As was the case with virtually all other shuls, there was a constant need to reassess protocol, following both state guidelines and current shul circumstances. The committee was always available to make the difficult calls. As current shul president Danny Pickett put it during his address, “I’m pretty sure there isn’t a course in medical school on how to reopen houses of worship during a pandemic. We are eternally grateful for their wisdom and understanding.”
The chesed committee, headed by Rina Schatz and Barbie Topial and involving a multitude of volunteers, stepped up during the worst of the pandemic, shopping, delivering food, helping with medical needs and keeping the lines of communication open for those isolated by extended lockdown. Topial marveled at how the shul membership came together for each other, commenting that “within days, 77 volunteers had signed up.” This was stressed by Rabbi Markowitz as well when he spoke to the attendees. “We did it b’yachad. Being here together is what makes this oasis so special.” This was in keeping with his regular Shabbat refrain, “It’s so nice to see you all.” Regarding Jeff, Rabbi Markowitz spoke of his “consistency and wisdom,” which echoed what others said about the former president—his unique ability to take on so much yet always remain unflappable.
As sisterhood co-president with Rachel Krich, Carol Cohen served for three years, working with women of the community on acts of chesed, on enhancing yomim tovim, and on brainstorming new ideas that were converted into successful events. They also secured meaningful speakers and developed cross-generational programming. Jeff, meanwhile, served as president during a momentous time for the shul. He oversaw the rabbinical transition as Rabbi Benjamin Yudin stepped down after serving for 50 years, replaced by Rabbi Markowitz. He was also heavily involved in a shul renovation project that was essentially a total makeover. Finally, he pushed for and facilitated the acquisition of a property adjacent to the entire back of the shul, an opportunity the shul had been hoping to secure for decades. Jeff made it happen despite competing against 11 others. The fact that the purchase was completed just a few months before the COVID-19 shutdown, which made that additional space absolutely necessary, was nothing short of remarkable. Any one of these undertakings would have been a major accomplishment for a shul president. The fact that all three occurred under one person’s watch was extraordinary. As Pickett noted, “During various times different types of presidential styles are needed. “Jeff was the right person for the time he served, expertly overseeing major transformations. We are all the better for it.”
In an exchange with The Jewish Link, Jeff noted that the experience changed him as well. “Partnering with Rabbi and Rebbtzin Shevi Yudin on a daily basis was inspiring on so many levels. I had a front row seat to witness the countless acts of chesed they perform in our community and around the globe. Simultaneously, I had the privilege of partnering with Rabbi Andrew and Dr. Sara Markowitz as they embarked on their new roles.” He also noted that he gained a new appreciation for shul volunteers and the countless personal hours they donate for the shul to successfully attain its goals.
Jeff is perhaps most proud of the fact that within the first month of his assuming the presidency, he conducted an extensive survey to learn what was most important to members, then moved forward with three major undertakings, while his team of volunteers were able to attract 50 new families during the process.
After Carol and Jeff accepted their awards, Jeff shared an experience he had early in his career, before he was married. He had accepted a position in San Francisco and was given a company car and absolute freedom to do what he wished in an area of extraordinary beauty. He said most would revel in such an opportunity, but he was miserable. Much later, as he grew in his frumkeit under the guidance of Rabbi Yudin, he realized that what he had been missing in that earlier period was community and spirituality. He added “Everything that matters to me happened through this shul.”
Robert Isler is a marketing researcher and freelance writer. He can be reached at [email protected]