The memory of Mel Cohen, who led Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Monmouth County from 1976 to 2006, will be honored Sunday, Oct. 14, when the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation holds its first New Jersey walk/run event at Pier Village in Long Branch.
Cohen, a longtime Ocean resident who later moved to Wayside, died of Myelodysplastic Disorder Syndrome in 2011, more than four years after he received a bone marrow transplant from a donor found through Gift of Life.
Without that transplant from Matt Rubinberg, Cohen would have missed those last four years, a period he spent as a “driving force” striving to build awareness about Gift of Life and the work it does to match up bone marrow donors and recipients, said Marti Freund, development associate at Gift of Life. “Mel Cohen was a great man. He truly dedicated his life to helping others. His focus was always to help those in need.”
Cohen, said Freund, “raised money to pay for processing of DNA swab kits — which are necessary to identify a good match — ran many bone marrow recruitment drives, and participated in speaking engagements to educate the community about the importance of GOL’s work.”
According to Freund, Cohen always hoped for a Walk for Life to be held in New Jersey. Noting that similar events have been hosted by GOL in Boca Raton, Fla. — where the organization is based — during the past two years, Freund said, “We couldn’t think of a more appropriate place to launch the expansion of this effort than New Jersey and a better man to honor than Mel Cohen.”
Jay Feinberg, whose family founded the Gift of Life Foundation in 1995, pointed out that the organization, now national in scope, got its start in the Garden State. Feinberg was diagnosed with leukemia in 1991, when he had just graduated from college and was living in West Orange. “My family members were tested, but there were no matches. The doctor told me that I probably would have difficulty connecting with anyone because I was Jewish, and there were very few people from the same gene pool on what was, at the time, a very short list of donors.”
Feinberg said his doctor was “very good, but he didn’t recognize the power of my secret weapon — a Jewish mother.” As Feinberg tells it, there never would have been a Gift of Life Foundation without the extraordinary determination of his mother Arlene.
With help from what was then United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ and the other Jewish community organizations, a donor was found. Now, 17 years later, Feinberg is healthy and helping others in his role as director of the Gift of Life Foundation.
Feinberg said the organization hopes to gain lots of attention and raise about $60,000 at the inaugural Mel Cohen Walk for Life in October. GOL plans to make the Long Branch activity an annual event and is planning similar events for Boston and Long Island.
This year in Long Branch, the dramatic highlight will be a face-to-face meeting between a recipient and his or her donor. “Meetings like this are crucial because they show donors and potential donors, in a measurable way, the meaningfulness of their gift,” said Feinberg.
Sandy Cohen, Mel’s wife for 23 years, said, “Mel’s greatest strengths included a sense of humor; an optimistic outlook on life; steadfast loyalty, honesty and truthfulness; and an eternal sense of hope.”
Were he still alive, she said, he would not only be thrilled and humbled by the honor of having the walk named for him, but “you could be sure he would be working passionately to make it a success.”