ON AN AUTUMN DAY in 2007, Charleston, SC philanthropist David Cohen sat down with a copy of the Atlanta Jewish Times that would significantly impact his life — not to mention the lives of hundreds of Jewish families in the Charleston, S.C. region.
“We subscribe to the Atlanta Jewish Times,” David Cohen recalls, “and I read a major article about PJ Library coming to Atlanta courtesy of the Bernie Marcus Foundation. I was fascinated by the concept [of the program], particularly the idea of reaching out to serve intermarried families and families ‘on the fringe’ of Jewish life. That really lit my fire.”
After sharing the article with his wife Linda, the Cohens immediately sought information about bringing PJ Library to their area of Charleston, SC. They reached out to the Charleston Jewish Federation (CJF), which helped the couple muster support for a local PJ program in Charleston.
FUNDING BY COMMITTEE
The Cohens have been involved with Jewish philanthropy since their college days. They consider Jewish continuity and community to be of the utmost importance. “We have three boys,” David says, “and we’ve been involved in every aspect of this community and all that goes with it.”
For this reason, the Cohens felt the real impact of the PJ Library program was its community-centric focus. As such, they felt the funding should also be a community-wide effort.
“Based on our collective enthusiasm,” David recalls, “we made a bunch of calls to friends, peers, and others in the community we knew could get involved. Some had children or grandchildren, and some were intermarried. We asked for a three-year commitment of $1,000 per year.”
“We felt like this was ‘paying rent’ to our community for being blessed with all we receive from it,” Linda adds. “We were able to get the money so quickly from the people we asked. The $1,000 was very doable.”
Linda reports that there were a total of ten initial donors at the program’s start in Charleston. Now there are a few more. Currently in its second three-year cycle, Linda says nearly all the initial $1,000 donors to the PJ Library community in Charleston are still on board.
David Cohen takes pride in discussing the ways PJ Library has affected his Charleston community in the last few years. He particularly likes to tell the story of an intermarried man he met at a PJ Library-related dinner party.
At that memorable event, David was introduced to a PJ Dad and was eager to get to know him. Since David didn’t recognize the gentleman, he made the assumption that the PJ Dad was fairly new to the community.
“I shook hands with him and asked him how long he had been in Charleston,” David recalls. The man informed David he had lived in the city for 10 years.
“I was embarrassed,” David admits. “I had assumed he was new to the area. In fact, this was the first time this fellow, after 10 years, had been involved with his Jewish community at all.”
David points to this man as a good example of what PJ Library can bring to a Jewish community. “This fellow’s first tie to the community was PJ Library. I said, ‘Wow. Now, that’s what PJ Library is all about!”
Though Linda lauds the PJ program in general, she is quick to point to the work of CJF program director Sarah Swingle as playing a significant role in the program’s Charleston success. “Sarah has created many PJ programs with a group that isn’t otherwise involved in the community,” she notes. “With PJ Library, she’s turning ‘on-the-fringe’ people to the community.”
Linda adds, “Sarah has held very unique programs that are not necessarily tied to a specific Jewish theme or event. They are centered on what the youth and their parents want to do. Each time Sarah holds an event, she will sign up another 10 or so for PJ Library.” Presently, PJ Library in Charleston reaches 250-plus children each month.
Because of PJ Library’s effect on the local Jewish community, the Cohens see the program as being one of the most rewarding they have experienced. “It has just been the most wonderful involvement,” Linda boasts. “It’s the most satisfying and exciting project we have been involved with — and we’ve been involved with many.”