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THEN & NOW: Jason Yale Cohen

October 16, 2019 at 8:29 am
by Jason Yale Cohen • Wilkes-Barre, PA Birthright Israel Alumnus 2000
Jason on Masada

Dear Mr. Charles Bronfman:

Thank you very much from the bottom of my heart for allowing me to be a participant in the Birthright Israel 2000 experience. The trip has left an impression on me, which will last a lifetime. How can I summarize this experience to you in just a few short paragraphs? This challenge is impossible. However, I would like to share some insight into my Jewish background and how this trip translated into a fulfilling and meaningful experience.

Jason’s Hofstra Hillel Birthright Israel group from 2000

As the trip came to a close, I realized there was a tremendous amount of information I needed to process. The sights, sounds, and smells of Israel had inundated my senses for two weeks. Family and friends asked the same question, “Jason, what was your favorite part of the trip?” How could I possibly answer this question in one sentence? The problem is I cannot just isolate one of the experiences and say it was the most fulfilling. Every situation had a lasting impression, no matter how small the detail.

One special element I brought to this trip was my Jewish education and background. I was raised in a conservative household and attended United Hebrew Institute in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, from Kindergarten until eighth grade. It offered me a secular and Hebrew curriculum. When I reached the high school level of my education, I left the routine of studying Hebrew until the year of my Confirmation. On the extra-curricular level, I participated in Jewish Center Youth. This program ran through the Jewish Community Center of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. During my senior year, I served as a teen representative to the Board of Directors. However, when I reached college, my Jewish comfort zone seemed miles away. How would I be able to stay connected to a Jewish community? Hofstra Hillel was the answer to my question.

Jason in the Dead Sea
Jason floating in the Dead Sea, 2000

Hofstra Hillel has met my Jewish expectations, yet I see my Jewishness on a new level. The older I get, the more I need to assess my Jewish values and adapt to the constant challenges life presents. Birthright Israel 2000 came at a time in my life when I questioned the meaning of my Jewish existence. I needed to find a way to reinvent myself and recall previous systems of belief. The sights, sounds, and smells of Israel helped to translate 20 years of education into a tangible reality.

Your vision has helped to shape the life of a young Jewish student ready to embark on life’s journey. Jewish education is crucial to the future of the Jewish faith. 

Thank you again from the bottom of my heart for playing an important role in my Jewish education. You have touched me deeply!

Sincerely,

Jason Yale Cohen


Dear Birthright Israel Foundation,

Thank you so much for sharing with me the letter I had written twenty years ago reflecting on my Birthright Israel trip. College was a very special time in my life, and I am still forever grateful for the Birthright Israel experience. I love sharing the fact that I was a part of the first round of students to participate in the inaugural trip. I still firmly believe that Birthright Israel helps to create space to acknowledge our Judaism while journeying through our homeland, which helps to help make our religion come alive.

Jason at the Western Wall, 2000

Judaism is the central focus of my life. Birthright Israel helped to cement my connection for Judaism, but at the time, I felt how can I translate this experience to post-college? After I graduated from Hofstra University, I decided to move back to my hometown of Wilkes-Barre, PA. I was able to begin pursuing my broadcasting career with my hometown television station. However, there was an emptiness and a longing to connect with my Jewish community on an adult level. Hofstra Hillel was a warm and caring community, and I was looking for a way to continue this connection. I began to reengage myself with my Jewish community I left a few years earlier.

I balanced my work life by volunteering with the Jewish Community Center and my former Hebrew school, United Hebrew Institute. Eventually, the Jewish community recognized my efforts and asked me to join the board of directors of the Jewish Community Center. I happened to join the board at a crucial moment in the history of the Wilkes-Barre Jewish community. The Jewish population was shrinking, and the board needed to find a way to reengage the Jewish community.

To make a long story short, I was a part of the process of consolidating our Jewish agencies and creating a new Jewish campus facility. This process took about ten years. I also have been teaching Hebrew school at the reform synagogue since 2009. At some point, I also began to help with the local BBYO chapter to help advise our Jewish teens since 2011.
It is so rewarding to help other Jewish children and teens find their voices as they are trying to navigate their Jewish journey.

My own ultimate personal test came in May when my mother passed away after a brief battle with lung cancer and pneumonia. Faith, family, and friends have been the source of comfort during this period. My mother taught me the values and the proper way to live a good life while growing up.

I personally chose to explore my Jewish options in college. Birthright Israel, along with the help of Hofstra Hillel, helped to illuminate the beauty of our Jewish heritage, which I hold dear to this very day. Judaism and the power of community is a force that cannot be denied. I am always drawing inspiration from the world around me based on Judaism. I am eternally grateful for my Birthright Israel experience, which helped to reignite and propel my ongoing Jewish journey.

Thank you again, twenty years later, for providing this life-changing experience. It came at the perfect time in my life when I found myself questioning everything. The primary lesson about Judaism and my journey is that twenty years later, I still find myself questioning everything. L’Shana Tova 5780 and Chazak, Chazak, V’nitchazeik! May we go from strength to strength as one Kehilla together.

Sincerely,
Jason Yale Cohen


Have you ever wondered what the early years of Birthright Israel were like? Are you curious about those who were originally selected to take part in this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? Our ‘Then & Now’ series dives into the lives of alumni from the very first Birthright Israel trips, taking you on a magical journey from the early 2000s to today.

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