The Jewish Communal Fund spoke recently with Lee Cohen, a JCF fundholder and accountant who is a very active lay leader in the Syrian community in Brooklyn and Deal, N.J. Cohen, who is the immediate past President of Sephardic Bikur Holim (SBH) Community Service Network—one of the largest social service agencies in Brooklyn—spoke about how he inculcates a charitable mindset among his children, the charitable causes that are important to him and his family, and why giving is a tax-smart strategy for his clients and friends.
Jewish Communal Fund: What values drive your involvement in charitable giving?
Lee Cohen: I’ve been involved in Sephardic Bikur Holim (SBH) for 15 years. For the past for years, I have served as the organization’s volunteer President—I just retired from that position in June. My charitable activities began when I was 16 or 17 years old. I would deliver challah (bread) to seniors at a senior citizen home every week. It was satisfying and a good feeling to give back. I stayed involved over the years, becoming the captain for cases all the way up to serving as Treasurer. The organization has eight different branches, from career services and financial aid to a mental health clinic, and a $10 million budget.
JCF: Who inspired your love of giving to others?
LC: I’ve been inspired since I’m young by my dad. He served as the president of our synagogue for many years; he helped to build it. He showed me what it was like to give back.
JCF: Can you share with us some additional charitable causes that are meaningful to you?
LC: Our community schools are Magen David Yeshiva and Yeshiva of Flatbush, which are both very meaningful to me since I have children attending both schools. Educating our children with the Jewish religion, alongside strong secular studies, is very important to me. Hatzalah, a volunteer Emergency Medical Service, is also an organization that I am in full support of as well. Another cause that is important to me is UJA-Federation of New York. It’s important to me that I not only support the many organizations that are within my community, but also that I contribute to charities helping people throughout the United States and world-wide.
JCF: How do you inculcate gratitude and generosity in your children?
LC: My children (ages 9 through 18) see how I give back—devoting my time in addition to financially supporting many charitable organizations. They also see my company name out there—as a firm, LM Cohen & Company supports many charitable causes. It’s important for me that they know that tzedakah (charity) is an important part of what we do. They have all been involved in various fundraising events at Sephardic Bikur Holim, their schools, or Hatzalah with me. They heard me speak all the time on behalf of SBH when I was president, and even helped to shape all the speeches and give me ideas. It’s a family affair.
JCF: What motivates your corporate giving, in addition to your personal charitable contributions?
LC: Giving back as a firm demonstrates not only to my staff but also to my clients that it’s not only about us. People see who we are, the type of people we are, and they want to do business with people who give back to the community.
JCF: How do you approach conversations around charitable giving with your clients?
LC: For me, launching into the charitable giving conversation is really easy. A lot of my clients know who I am and they support me and the organizations I support. They look to me for guidance on what they should do and how they should contribute. That’s been a great success and partnership. I recommend Jewish Communal Fund quite often, since it makes charitable giving very easy. We often explain to our clients what the benefits of charitable giving are and how charity affects their bottom line tax savings. When they understand it, they’re more inclined to give more. We do a lot of tax planning at year-end. When our clients have a fund at JCF, it makes it so much easier, since they can contribute to JCF, get an immediate tax deduction, and have the flexibility to distribute it later on.
JCF: How did you hear about JCF?
LC: I’ve had a fund with JCF for about three years. So many of my clients had JCF funds and in my work as an accountant, I saw first-hand the benefits of using a donor advised fund. When my charitable giving got to a certain point, I thought it made sense. Since then, I’ve been a big advocate of it. It’s been a wonderful experience because it’s so easy. The costs are so effective as compared to people having their own foundation, and it gives us tools to help people plan, which is great.
JCF: Do you have a philosophy that guides your charitable giving?
LC: When I see a direct effect and see firsthand what these organizations are doing for other people; that’s what motivates me. As President of SBH, I would regularly get an email or text or letter saying how much we did and what it meant to them; it just motivates me to do more and give more to all the charities I support.
JCF: Any advice for those first getting started with philanthropy?
LC: It’s important that they find organizations to support that are managed properly. I use Charity Navigator a lot to guide me and make sure that charities are on the up and up. I want to be sure that the donations are actually being spent on charitable causes.