Bend the Arc Leader Stosh Cotler Has Radical Streak — and Black Belt

Tattoo and Black Attire Sets Activist Apart

Old and New: Incoming leader of Bend the Arc Stosh Cotler and departing CEO Alan van Capelle.
bend the arc
Old and New: Incoming leader of Bend the Arc Stosh Cotler and departing CEO Alan van Capelle.

By Julie Wiener

Published January 10, 2014.
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(JTA) — When Stosh Cotler takes over as CEO of Bend the Arc, a Jewish group that fights for immigration reform, workers’ rights and other domestic liberal causes, she will be one of the few women leading a national Jewish group of its size.

But Cotler’s gender is not the only thing that sets her apart.

It’s not just that she only connected with Judaism as an adult or that her appearance during an interview in her Manhattan office — all-black clothes, dark red lipstick, pale blue fingernail polish and a visible tattoo on her arm — is more Goth than corporate. How many Jewish communal CEOs have a black belt in kung fu, trained women in self-defense, danced at a sex club or protested Israel’s treatment of Palestinians during the second intifada?

The 45-year-old Olympia, Wash., native declined to discuss her past or present views on Israel, which she said are not relevant to her work at Bend the Arc. But she describes her unconventional background as an advantage in reaching out to Jews on the margins of the community.

“If we are successful in reaching more Jews who have little or no or an ambivalent connection to being Jewish, if they come to us, we will be transformed because of that infusion of very different perspectives,” Cotler said.

Bend the Arc was formed from the 2011 merger of the New York-based Jewish Funds for Justice and the West Coast-based Progressive Jewish Alliance. It has billed itself as “the nation’s leading progressive Jewish voice solely dedicated to mobilizing Jewish Americans to advocate for the nation’s most vulnerable.” In addition to its policy advocacy, Bend the Arc collects funds for community investing in disadvantaged areas, makes grants to grassroots activist groups and conducts leadership training. The organization had a budget of $5.7 million last year.

Cotler has been with the organization since 2005, for the past three years serving as its executive vice president. She is replacing Alan van Capelle, who spent two years at Bend the Arc’s helm and is leaving to become CEO of the Educational Alliance, a venerable Jewish institution on New York’s Lower East Side.

Cotler’s colleagues at Bend the Arc and liberal Jewish groups give her high marks for her strategic planning skills and collaborative approach. She has led Bend the Arc’s Selah Leadership Program, which has trained more than 300 Jewish activists working for a mix of Jewish and secular organizations.


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