Building named in honor of Victor and Ellen Cohn
KENT, OHIO - Hillel at Kent State University dedicated its new building, the Cohn Jewish Student Center, on Sunday, September 13, 2009, with a celebration crowd of more than 400 students, alumni, community members, donors and visiting dignitaries from around the country.
The building was named in honor of Victor and Ellen Cohn of Moreland Hills, Ohio, in recognition of a gift from their son and daughter-in-law, Gary and Lisa Cohn. Gary Cohn is the president and chief operating officer of The Goldman Sachs Group, Inc. Gary and Lisa both grew up in Shaker Heights. They currently reside in New York City.
Explaining why he chose to make this gift to Hillel at Kent State, Gary Cohn explained, “In making this gift, I was thinking about three things: How to celebrate the milestone birthdays of both my mother and my father who were turning 75; how I could give back to Northeast Ohio where I have my roots; and what organization would be meaningful to my family both now and in the future.”
Tim Cohen, senior vice president of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life , thanked the Cohn Family on behalf of not only the local students who would use and enjoy the new building, but also the 400,000 students participating in Hillels around the world. “Your generosity made the Cohn Jewish Student Center possible,” he said.
The dedication celebration started with student-led tours of the building for the more than 400 people who attended the event. The mezuzah-hanging was the central moment of the dedication, as Vic Cohn -- assisted by Keith Mirman of Akron, Hillel executive director Jennifer Chestnut, Gary Shamis of Solon and Rabbi Alan Lettofsky, a former executive director of Hillels of Northeast Ohio -- affixed the mezuzah on the building’s main door, signifying the building as a Jewish home.
Following the mezuzah-hanging, guests were welcomed by Hillel at Kent State Board of Trustees President Beth Rosenberg, a 1980 KSU alumna, who thanked the hundreds of people in the Cleveland, Akron, Canton and Youngstown areas who have supported the organization for more than 50 years.
Harley Gross, board chair of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland, thanked Victor Cohn for this dedication to Hillel and thanked the many donors to the Federation’s Centennial Initiative for their part in making this dream a reality.
“The Centennial Initiative was created to help ensure the continuity of our Jewish values to future generations – and the future of our Jewish community rests largely upon our students. Hillel is paramount in shaping the Jewish experience on campus. This beautiful new home is a place for students, faculty and alumni to learn and socialize, as well as a place where students from varying backgrounds can come together to fully appreciate their diversity and their strength. “
Kent State President Lester Lefton noted that all college presidents love to dedicate new buildings, but that this particular building was especially important because of how meaningful it is to the students who use it. “For our students, it is a place to find friends and mentors,” he said. “It is a place for intellectual and spiritual sustenance. A place that increases the opportunities for students to take on the job of Tikkun Olam – repairing the world – and involving themselves in meaningful leadership roles.”
Ohio Board of Regents Chancellor Eric Fingerhut echoed President Lefton’s comments, reminding the audience of the importance of the college years in shaping the futures of young adults. “It is so important that we contribute the most we can to enhance Jewish lives. So the work of Hillel – attracting; guiding and educating; and keeping students in Northeast Ohio – is especially gratifying,” he said. “The Cohn Jewish Student Center answers this call.”
Joseph Kanfer, honorary chair of Hillel’s “Building a Place to Call Home” campaign, president of the United Jewish Communities and a member of Hillel's International Board of Governors, thanked the Federations of Akron, Canton, Youngstown and Cleveland for working together over the past decades to help create Hillel at Kent State and to build the new building, which he called the “crown jewel” of their work together.
Kanfer also thanked Vic and Ellen Cohn for the mitzvah (good deed) of teaching their children the importance of tzedakah – philanthropy. He also thanked Gary and Lisa for doing two important mitzvot – honoring their parents and passing on the legacy of supporting important causes to their own children. “From your family, we see a great example of the representation of the Jewish value, L’dor Vador – from generation to generation shall we pass on our heritage,” he said.
“I thank you not only on behalf of the 1,500 Jewish students at KSU and the University of Akron today, but also the thousands who will walk through these doors in the future,” Kanfer said. “Vic has been integral to Hillel’s revitalization through the years -- not only in its bricks and mortar. Vic has been a staunch supporter and true leader every step of the way.”
When it was his turn to speak, Vic Cohn, the proud father, expressed surprise at the hundreds of people who said so many beautiful things about him, his wife, Ellen, and his family, in the 80-page tribute book that served as a program for the event. “Are you sure you’re talking about the right Vic Cohn?” he joked. But getting serious, Cohn thanked the countless people – especially the builders and the building committee – who worked tirelessly on every detail of the building.
Saving his highest praise for Hillel at Kent State’s executive director Jennifer Chestnut, he called her the “captain” of the building team, and thanked her for all her effort to make an important impact on the lives of so many students.
“Ellen and I are so touched by Gary and Lisa’s gift and honored that Hillel will carry our family’s name,” he said. “We believe in Hillel at Kent State’s ability to truly strengthen and grow the Jewish community in Northeast Ohio. I’ve been coming to Hillel in Kent since the ‘70s. It’s truly a hidden jewel in our crown. More people need to recognize that it’s really in our backyard. These are our kids, and we need to take care of them.”
Offering her own thanks, Chestnut joked that it was hard to be the last speaker at the event, after everyone else had already thanked the many people she had worked with so closely over such a long time, noting that today’s KSU freshmen were in third grade when plans for the new building began. While taking a few moments to thank everyone who had made the new building possible, she saved her final thanks for Vic Cohn. “Vic has spent countless hours on every detail of this incredible new building. Every light switch, every piece of furniture has Vic’s handprint on it. He has ensured that everything is of the highest quality so that it will meet the needs of our students for generations to come.”
The new Cohn Jewish Student Center is the first Hillel building to be built on campus property at a state school. The new building features a large student lounge and billiards room; three large multipurpose spaces, including one that serves as a chapel; Portage County’s only commercial Kosher kitchen; a dining room which seats 120; a laundry room; and administrative and student leadership offices. It is also equipped with state-of-the-art audio visual equipment including three flat screen HDTVs, free WiFi, Nintendo Wii, three projection screens and the ability to play an iPod throughout the building. A café in the lounge is expected to open this fall. The building’s outdoor spaces include a wrap-around porch, a patio with amphitheater-style seating and a balcony, which boasts some of the most picturesque views of campus.
Barbara Ferne, Canton, parent of a KSU student and a member of the event planning committee, said she’s glad that Hillel at Kent State has such a beautiful building, but she understands that what really matters is what happens inside the building. “The building is spectacular,” she said. “But my guess is that there are many other lovely Hillels across the country. It’s this one, though, that has gone out of its way to reach out and make the kids feel special and welcome.”
The difference between Hillel’s former home -- a small, 80-year-old, 4-bedroom house off campus -- and the new one is striking. “I helped renovate the old house nearly 30 years ago,” Vic Cohn reminded the audience. “To stand in this new facility and think of how many students will be changed because of these walls is incredible.”
“We were delighted to make this gift in honor of my parents and my dad’s involvement in Hillel,” said Gary Cohn of his gift. “With kids of my own ready to go off to college soon, I know how important it is to ensure they have a place to connect to their Jewish community with a home away from home. It’s great to know that students are already enjoying the new building and will continue to enjoy it for generations to come.”
Students have already made themselves at home in the new building, which opened in February. “Almost all of my classes last semester were across the street,” said Aaron Sacks, a recent graduate from Lyndhurst, Ohio, who is now working in Arizona. “I came here almost every day to study and hang out. I brought my friends, my study groups. It’s comfortable, convenient and I know that everyone is welcome.”
Participation in Hillel activities has grown dramatically since the new building opened, with Shabbat attendance doubling most weeks, and more than 100 students attending each of a variety of different social, cultural and religious programs.