This profile appears as part of “16 Over 61,” a collaboration between the Forward and the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan’s Wechsler Center for Modern Aging.
Gerald “Jerry” Cohen, 69, has long been a quiet leader both in his Jewish community in Portland, Ore., and in the broad world of aging advocacy.
The director of AARP’s Oregon office until 2019 and a longtime leader of Congregation Shir Tikvah, Cohen has worked to embody his favorite Hillel quote: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
The greatest test of that motto came last year, when Cohen and his wife, Ruth, tragically lost their daughter, Sarah. Cohen went to work in her memory, fighting for the implementation of a “Preschool for All” ballot measure in Oregon’s Multnomah County, which includes Portland, that Sarah had championed. The measure passed, marking a major victory in the nationwide campaign for universal preschool.
As Cohen’s wife, Ruth, who nominated him for “16 Over 61,” wrote, Cohen would have been justified in taking a break from community service after stepping down from his role with AARP. Instead, he became a devoted volunteer for causes throughout his community, including continuing commitments with AARP. As a member of the inaugural cohort of “16 Over 61” honorees, he’s a model of the Jewish spirit of service.
Describe your ideal birthday celebration.
For years we have held a so-called “Mayhem & Merriment” open house for our eclectic menagerie of diverse friends and family. Over the afternoon over 90 people would attend, pre-COVID. And for my “milestone” birthdays — 40, 50, 65 — my wife and daughter Sarah (z”l) always pulled off surprise parties. Sharing and connecting friends to friends has been a value we cherish.
You wake up on a beautiful Sunday morning with an unplanned day ahead of you, and no responsibilities. How do you choose to spend it?
I start with daily hugs with my wife, savoring my cup of coffee, doing my various physical therapy exercises for my back and knee, perhaps reading a chapter from a book and identifying three things I wish to accomplish that day with no particular order or priority. The key is having some purpose.
What makes you smile, no matter what?
Looking at my wife and our daughter’s (z”l) smile and finding a really bad pun to share!
When you get good news, who is the first person you tell, and why?
My wife. She is my life’s companion, my muse, my inspiration and one who drives me forward with loving kindness.
What’s your earliest Jewish memory?
Sitting next to my Dad (z”l) at a service, snuggled against his tallis bag and taking in the music from the chants.
What’s one thing you absolutely cannot live without?
Purpose. I must have and find meaning in what I do and how it leaves the world in a better place. That and humor!
How do you feel you’ve changed over the years? What ideas have been most meaningful to you as you’ve traveled through life?
I’ve learned to slow down (a little), reflect and accept more and be less competitive with others. I have found that travels far and wide, breaking bread with different cultures and peoples, and lifelong learning have made me value peace. And I have found that the stories of Torah give me greater insights into stories and how they shape our journeys.
Has your Judaism informed how you approach the process of aging? If so, how?
Honoring elders. From generation to generation, our faith gives us a strong set of valuing wisdom across ages. We must keep and share memories via the stories we carry forth.
What does the idea of honoring and celebrating aging mean to you?
While working for AARP for many years, we used many catchphrases — ReimAGEin, #Disrupt, etcetera. To me, the point is to embrace and celebrate age wherever one is on the chronological scale. It also means that we have a duty to embrace all generations. We have been granted a gift of longevity and we must use that gift!