On Oct. 22, more than 65 colleagues, friends, and family members of the late Mel Cohen gathered at Temple Beth Miriam in Elberon to recognize his 30 years of selfless service to the Jewish community. As the founding executive director of Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Monmouth County, where he served from 1976 to 2006, Cohen helped build the agency from a two-room, two-person organization to a fully staffed professional agency offering mental health counseling and social services out of three offices in Monmouth County.
At the tribute, Jewish Federation of Monmouth County announced the Outstanding Jewish Professional Award, which was accepted in Cohen’s honor by his wife, Sandy. The newly created award will be presented each year in his memory. “Mel exemplified what a Jewish professional should be,” said federation executive director Keith Krivitzky. “An outstanding Jewish professional shows a dedicated commitment to the community, embodies Jewish values in their work and in who they are, and builds a stronger, more vibrant community for the future.”
The federation will turn to its colleagues, partner agencies, and local rabbis for nominations each year and will involve Sandy Cohen in the selection process, Krivitzky said.
“The award is very meaningful to our family,” said Sandy Cohen, “and I know that Mel would feel very good about it as well. It helps perpetuate the continuity of his life’s work.” The Ocean Township resident also served more than 26 years as executive director of several Jewish family service agencies, including those in Allentown, Pa.; Ocean County; and Middlesex County.
In a poignant speech at the tribute, she spoke about her late husband’s commitment to tikun olam and his battle with a life-threatening bone marrow illness called myelodysplasia, which led to his death this past July.
“Mel’s devotion to JF&CS and his leadership throughout the years spoke loud and clear that the profession of social work is important and essential,” she said. “He taught us by example that hope transcends reality; that our singular and combined efforts can continue to improve the world in which we live; and that our work today is the legacy of the future.”
Celebrating his legacy
Cohen underwent a stem-cell transplant through Gift of Life in 2007, later becoming president of that organization’s New Jersey chapter. “Mel chose to spend his time offering hope and optimism to other transplant patients,” Sandy Cohen said. “He mentored, he educated, he supported, and he inspired all who came to him, because he cared deeply and he understood that in spite of his own daily struggle, he could still do something meaningful to help others who were experiencing the pain and fear of a life-threatening illness.”
Monies raised from the event will go toward the Mel Cohen Fund, which will help provide continuing education for JF&CS professional staff. “More and more families are suffering the effects of a failing economy,” said JF&CS director of operations Barbara J. Marshall. “It is more important than ever that JF&CS professional staff receive the additional professional training necessary to deal with the enormous stress facing many families.”
JF&CS executive director Paul Freedman read a letter by Bert Goldberg, the former president of the national Jewish Family & Children’s Agencies. Other speakers included Rabbi Cy Stanway of Temple Beth Miriam; Diana Eckhaus, JF&CS director of professional services; Jess Levy, CEO of the Ruth Hyman JCC’s Axelrod Performing Arts Center in Deal; Eric Casriel, past president of JF&CS, who presented Sandy Cohen with an award commemorating Mel’s dedication to JF&CS and the community; and federation president Joseph Hollander, who announced the Outstanding Jewish Professional Award.
“Mel Cohen was a remarkable man who put the community ahead of his own self,” said JF&CS president Laura Krantz of Ocean Township. “The new award bears his name and celebrates his legacy. He is now a part of the community forever and ever, which is a fitting tribute to him and an honor for his family.”