In a celebration filled with love and laughter, the Jewish Historical Society of New Jersey paid tribute to its longtime member and perennial financial secretary, Robert Cowen Jr., by presenting him with its 2016 Lasting Achievement Award on May 24 at the Crystal Plaza in Livingston.
Cowen, an 87-year-old businessman and entrepreneur from Morristown, was honored for his dedication to Torah study, his devotion to service and philanthropy within and outside the Jewish community, his expertise in Egyptian hieroglyphics, and his love of adventurous travel; he has visited 67 countries, ranging from Anguilla to Zimbabwe.
Cowen, born in New York in 1929, moved to South Orange at the age of 10. In a video presentation that was part salute and part roast, a narrator read from the honoree’s sixth-grade report card that “Robert is very apt to be satisfied with results less than his best.” Furthermore, he had committed the unpardonable sin of sloppy penmanship — “he holds his pen and pencil too tightly,” wrote his teacher.
But, it was added, “his real redeeming quality…was his splendid fund of information and interest in social studies.”
A graduate of Columbia High School in Maplewood and Columbia University, with master’s degrees from Drew and New York universities, Cowen, the narrator observed, “is someone you want on your team if you are playing Trivial Pursuit.”
But most of his pursuits have been decidedly untrivial. His resume includes a job at A. Goodman and Sons matza makers, where he learned to weld and fix packaging machines. Later, he ran businesses ranging from the Swensen Ice Cream franchises to manufacturing charcoal briquettes.
In 1990 he became the chief financial officer of Cowen Media, which covers such sporting events as the Olympics, Super Bowl, World Series, World Cup, and Kentucky Derby.
A sportsman himself, Cowen enjoys playing tennis and golf, riding horses, climbing mountains, and taking part in archaeological digs. On a recent trip to Israel, he joined an expedition to the Roman ruins of Caesaria, “discovering a mosaic floor that hadn’t seen the light of day for 1,400 years,” according to the video’s narrator.
In 1953, while on duty with the United States Army, he married Ilene Abramson; they have three children and eight grandchildren.
Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz of Cowen’s synagogue, Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, saluted “my friend and my teacher” by saying “at age 120 — and not before then — you will not have to worry because you will have taught us how to carry on with wisdom and purpose and sacred direction…. One day you will know that you have left a lasting impression on each and every one of our minds and hearts and spirits.”
Cowen, said JHS executive director and curator Linda Forgosh, “is more than the society’s trustee and financial secretary. He is our visionary whose suggestions have changed the way our archival collections are accessed on the Internet.”
Cowen accepted the tribute with typical brevity and wit by quoting a line from comedian George Burns: “A speech should have a good beginning and a good ending, and the two should be as close together as possible.”
Then he said, “Goodnight.”