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Cohen, Jack Joseph


COHEN, JACK JOSEPH (1919– ), Reconstructionist rabbi and educator. Cohen was born in Brooklyn, New York, earned his B.A. from Brooklyn College in 1940, and received his M.H.L. and ordination from the Conservative movement's *Jewish Theological Seminary in 1943. He studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem even before the creation of the State of Israel and received his Ph.D. in education from Columbia University's Teachers College in 1958. He was awarded honorary D.D. degrees from both the Jewish Theological Seminary (1968) and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, which simultaneously bestowed on him its Keter Torah Award (2000).

After serving as educational director of the Park Synagogue in Cleveland, Ohio (1943–45), Cohen was named director of the Jewish Reconstructionist Foundation, where, for the next 10 years he oversaw the activities and institutions of the growing movement. In the cause of promoting Reconstructionist Judaism, he published educational material (such as Zionism Explained, The Theology of the Jewish Prayer Book, and a study guide for Milton *Steinberg's A Partisan Guide to the Jewish Problem); created havurot; lectured widely throughout the United States; and was associate editor of the Reconstructionist magazine. But his efforts to convince the Reconstructionist laity to support the opening of an office in Israel, to establish a camping program, to develop a training program for teachers, and a variety of other activities were ultimately frustrated. During his tenure, the Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations was formed. In 1953, he became educational director of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, the Reconstructionist congregation founded in New York City 30 years earlier by Mordecai *Kaplan. In 1954, Cohen was also named rabbi of the saj, where he is credited with a number of educational innovations, including setting up experimental schools and establishing a year-long program of study for bat- and bat mitzvah students and their parents.

Although clearly identified with Reconstructionism, Cohen remained associated with the Conservative movement. He was a lecturer at the Jewish Theological Seminary (1955–61) and chairman of the United Synagogue Commission on Jewish Education (1960–61). In 1961, Cohen moved to Israel and assumed the directorship of the B'nai B'rith Hillel Foundation at the Hebrew University, serving until 1984. He maneuvered skillfully to permit expressions of religious pluralism while resisting Reform and Conservative attempts to import denominational divisions into Israel. He also worked to improve Arab-Jewish relations on campus and widened the scope of Hillel. In 1970, Cohen joined the faculty of Jerusalem's David Yellin College of Education (1970–83), on whose board he also served. He also taught students of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College who were studying in Israel (1970–2002).

In 1962, Cohen was instrumental in founding the egalitarian Congregation Mevakshei Derekh, widely considered the first Reconstructionist synagogue in Israel. He served as the first chairman of Mevakshei Derekh for several decades and, although he never took the official title of rabbi, has always been acknowledged as its de facto spiritual leader. In 1984, the congregation was able to move into its own permanent building.

Cohen wrote numerous articles for Anglo-Jewish and Hebrew journals, as well as many chapters in scholarly compilations. He also wrote eight books, including several on philosophy and education. These include The Creative Audience (with Rebecca Imber, 1954), The Case for Religious Naturalism (1958), Jewish Education in a Democratic Society (1964), The Reunion of Isaac and Ishmael (1989), Morim Lizman Navokh (Hebrew, 1993; English version: Guides for an Age of Confusion: Studies in the Thinking of Avraham Y. Kook and Mordecai M. Kaplan, 1999), Major Philosophers of Jewish Prayer in the 20th Century (2000), Judaism as an Evolving Civilization (with Yosef Begun, in Russian, 2001). Cohen also served on the editorial board of the Reconstructionist.

In Israel, Cohen became a member of the Ministry of Education's Committee on Culture and Leisure Time and chairman of the Israel Interfaith Association, which brings together Jews, Christians and Muslims for dialogue.


P.S. Nadell, Conservative Judaism in America: A Biographical Dictionary and Sourcebook (1988).

[Bezalel Gordon (2nd ed.)]

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