What better time to believe in grace than in the Easter season? Or, for David Cohen, in the season of Passover. The former president of Common Cause and “the preeminent voice of public advocacy” was still in Passover observance mode when he arrived in Honolulu to speak at the graduation of the 12th, and induction of the 13th class of Hogan Entrepreneurial students at Chaminade University on April 23rd, 2014. “This is a kind of bar/bat mitzvah for the program,” joked Cohen, who was honored with the Hogan Lifetime Achievement Award for his grassroots advocacy efforts on behalf of the public interest. Cohen is the senior Congressional Fellow for the Council for a Livable World and a senior advisor at Encore.org which helps boomers find useful second careers.
The man whose faith practices include turning to the psalms daily, also believes that it is perfectly okay to talk back to the Torah. Cohen’s success in building coalitions and talking to politicians of every stripe to move issues forward through negotiation and compromise is grounded in both his faith and his pragmatism. “I believe in grace,” he says. He has taught many, both in the United States and abroad, how to demonstrate that grace and maintain a civility towards each other, including one’s adversaries, even in the midst of challenges that tax the spirit.
Opening up Space for Many Voices
He believes in the value of recognizing that there are not always “bright lines” to help us navigate through the complexity of issues. Coming up with good solutions requires that we allow space for many voices. “You do more when you open things up,” he says.
He offers, as an example of that, the enrichment of the rabbinate by the entrance of women into its ranks over the last few decades.”We have seen several strong women rabbis emerge ever since the doors were opened to them,” he said.
Cohen, who is also active in the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, points to the many women in critical leadership roles in that organization which is dedicated to reducing the toll from tobacco use and secondhand smoke in the United States and around the world.
He welcomed the remarks of the new entrants to the Hogan Program, many of them women, who spoke of hoping to improve their leadership skills in order to bring about positive change in their communities. Especially memorable was the promise Elizabeth Rutun made. Rutun told the audience assembled in the Mystical Rose Oratory that once she had acquired those skills, she hoped to find ways to change the patriarchal culture of her island home, Yap. She wants to create opportunities for women to have their voices heard and be able to play a more effective role in improving the quality of life for all.
Not surprisingly, the man who has spent a lifetime helping to shape public policy by being attentive to the needs of his neighbors and advocating for the common good, cites as his favorite piece of wisdom, this teaching from the talmudic sage, Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am for myself alone, who am I?” For the Hogan students and many others who met David Cohen in Honolulu last week, the experience was an encounter with kindness, humility and wisdom: the gifts of grace.