Growing up on Long Island in New York in a Conservative family, Jessica Cohen held a deep desire to go to Israel.
The second intifada dashed her hopes of getting there in high school. In college, she finally went on a Birthright trip in her freshman year at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., returning four more times in college and opting to return for four months of study at a women’s seminary in Jerusalem following college.
“I had never had the opportunity to do Jewish studies full time,” she said. “It was just really wonderful to immerse myself in that.”
Cohen, 34, was active with United Synagogue Youth in high school and at both Chabad and Hillel at Harvard.
As Cohen was exposed to Orthodox practice among her peers at college, she said she found something “very special” about the practice of Judaism. She then moved toward Orthodox observance in what she called an evolution.
How did her parents react?
“It was an adjustment,” she said. “They’re proud of me no matter what. We joke that it’s their fault. They brought me up with such a strong sense of Judaism.”
Later, she met her husband on a blind date, who also came to Orthodoxy independently from a less observant upbringing.
Today, Cohen takes part in both the Jewish and civic worlds, chairing the Cleveland Heights planning commission and on the board of Lev Miriam Bikur Cholim of Cleveland in Cleveland Heights.
A member of Shomre Shabbos in Cleveland Heights and the mother of four, her involvement with Bikur Cholim, which tends to the sick in Cleveland in myriad ways, grew directly out of personal experience.
When she was due with her third child on the final day of Passover in 2013, someone brought her kosher for Passover meals before she went to the hospital and then breakfast at Lake West Hospital the day after she delivered, which coincided with the first day following Passover.
“Thank G-d we haven’t had to need it for other reasons,” she said.
Cohen came to Cleveland as a trailing spouse.
She has served as vice chair of the Cleveland Heights charter review commission and served on the boards of the United Black Fund and the Hispanic Alliance.
Cohen has worked in both Jewish and nonsectarian organizations. She opened the Cleveland office of Agudath Israel, where she worked for 31/2 years. She worked for Breakthrough Through, a charter school network for four years.
“After that, I was scooped up by the Jewish Federation (of Cleveland),” where she became managing director of community relations, she said. There, she “oversaw all the building of relationships with the general community, policy we needed to build consensus for, and combating anti-Semitism and efforts to delegitimize Israel in the region.”
She called that work “really tough but incredibly rewarding.”
It was also demanding. When the Tree of Life Congregation shootings took place in Pittsburgh, she and the Federation team worked nonstop on a community response and rally.
She left Federation in March, partly to begin law school at Cleveland Marshall College of Law in Cleveland at night this summer.
She now holds a position as vice president of external affairs at Unify Labs, one she calls “more contained.”
Cohen said she feels an imperative when asked to help.
“I can’t help but to give of my skills and my time,” Cohen said. “It’s very difficult for me to say no to help when asked. I feel a very strong sense of responsibility because of the privileges I’ve had in my life.”