“Let’s meet at UJA. That’s really where I come to life,” Rina Cohen texts me the day I’m set to interview her. At 5:00pm, I make my way through UJA’s revolving doors and am greeted by a security guard at the front desk. “You’re here to meet with Rina? She’s a sweet one,” he says knowingly. As we’ll soon find out, Rina has worn many hats during her lifetime, rightfully assigning her many different names.
We sat down to chat about her travels (an enviable rolodex of countries many only dream of visiting), and she doesn’t talk about the scenery or her packing essentials. She speaks candidly about her community work in developing countries and the impact we can all make in our own communities. Our chat ended quickly so that the full time UJA Program Executive and grad school student could run home to cook up a storm, as a host for the following night’s dinner. When I asked her how she balances her busy schedule she attributed her success to a great partner and time management skills. For more on Rina, read her full interview below!
Can you tell me about your educational background?
I graduated from Yeshivah of Flatbush—very proud Flatbush alum— and had a dream of going to Barnard. I loved this idea of stepping outside of my world and being on a campus where women were running the show. I jumped right into the learning—and there was so much to learn. I majored in Psychology and completed certificate programs in Urban Education and Women and Leadership studies. The Barnard education program afforded me the opportunity to work in lots of different public schools in Harlem, Bronx, and Manhattan. I even had the opportunity to teach a civics class in to Harlem and Bronx high schoolers who towered over me. My students were passionate about community issues and were excited to share their opinions challenging conventional practices. I realized that they were never given the opportunity to engage in a conversation with their peers about these issues, nor bring about substantive change to their community. We worked together to come up with solutions that we could implement and we had a great time taking action. I had a lot of experience teaching by the time I graduated, and I appreciated the opportunity to be in front of a classroom. This experience also sparked my interest and ability to think about community issues.
How did you incorporate learning into your travels?
My parents always encouraged me to get out and explore over the summers, so I studied abroad many summers and a semester. It started off with a summer trip to Israel called Sulam – an Ashkenaz program – with a bunch of my friends. We had a blast. The next summer, I participated in a chesed program in Ecuador. I spent an summer in Israel working in a children's home called Bet Elazraki. I had this dream of going to Australia, so in preparation for another summer, I found a study abroad program with an internship. Being an observant Jew, I called and I asked lots of questions about how we might make this work. When I got there, I set up my own kitchen. My internship was at Jewish Care of Sydney, a mental health clinic. Every day we engaged in different activities with clients who were suffering from severe mental illnesses. It was hard work.
The following summer, I studied in Cape Town, South Africa, and participated in a community development program. I think what I loved most about that program is that I had been thinking about what makes a strong community, but I never had the chance to really study the subject. In the classroom, we were focused on grassroots community development, which at it cores meant that we wanted to help local communities create the change that they themselves wanted to see. After class we worked in the townships, which are the most impoverished neighborhoods. I am a white, Jewish, Orthodox woman and this one of my first experiences fully immersing in neighborhoods that are so different than my own. The program sharpened my ability to view the world through many different lenses and also recognize instances where my own worldview was hindering my ability to either form a connection with community members or understand a specific social problem.
After South Africa, I stepped into an educational program in Copenhagen, continuing my community and education work. My first placement was in a preschool located in the forest, where I reveled in the freedom of one of their most progressive styles of education: no set curriculum, just a few teachers, children and a forest. I was covered in dirt every day, and I loved it, but I wasn’t able to get Barnard credit for it. My professor searched for a new opportunity. She asked me if I was okay being placed in a Muslim private school and I said “Of course, why not?” My professor said we know you identify as a Jewish woman. And I said, “No problem, I'm all for it.” In reality, I had a huge pit in my stomach.
I took a couple of buses every day to get to this school, and the students called me Hojam Rina, like Morah Rina. By then I had worked in so many school and acquired lots of different names. I had been called Ms. K, Ms. Rina, Ms. Kattan, Hojam Rina, and Morah Rina. My title changed based on my context but I owned it in every way – or at least tried to. What was most compelling about the experience working in the Muslim private school was that I had found a comfort and a home that I wasn't able to find in other communities in Copenhagen. And to be honest, it was shocking to me. Hojam Lelah was my co-teacher-- she only wore green, because she loved nature. I didn't plan on telling her I was Jewish on the first day but I had to mention an upcoming Jewish holiday. I was shocked when she said “You should be careful, the cookies in the teachers room aren’t marked.” Marked? How did she know?! She welcomed me with open arms and made me feel that my Jewish identity was not something I needed to hide. Actually, our religious identities allowed us to form a strong connected. I wasn't receiving the same openness to my religious identity within other Danish communities. I was very warmly embraced in that community and I connected to many young women who had tremendous aspirations. I will never forget the joy of the young girls would go into a “girl's room” and they would quickly take off all of their head scarfs and blast music. One of the girls shared that she wanted to be a doctor, while also acknowledging that her religious identity would make it hard for her. At the time, there was so much tension between the Muslim and Danish communities. I remember feeling inspired by her commitment to her religious identity and dreams. That really helped me shape my own Jewish identity and be proud of who I am and what I bring as a Syrian Orthodox Jewish woman.
How did you bring this concept of community back home?
I decided that it wasn't practical to be traveling for a living and wanted to find a way to translate what I love into a more local lifestyle. This was especially hard for me, because travel gave me an outlet to be my full self. My best friend, Rocky Solomon, connected me with an organization called American Jewish World Service, a human rights and international development organization. The CEO there was Ruth Messinger – one of my greatest idols – and a woman who continues to carry me through my career. She is a spectacular in so many ways. I had the chance to work as her intern that summer. It was an opportunity of a lifetime. From the subway to interacting with people, I had a chance to follow Ruth’s every move that summer. Humble, articulate, sharp, and deeply committed to community work. I watched her in action and started to dream about what it would look like to be a woman solving community problems in a bold and beautiful way. This experience was also my first exposure working in the Jewish nonprofit sector.
How did you end up working for UJA?
I was trying to merge this love for education, teaching, community, and international work. I was building relationships and working to have an impact on individuals, but at the same time I was noticing so many social issues that I wanted to able to solve. This required me to be one step removed from the client and that’s how I landed at UJA.
When I graduated, I put so much pressure on myself to find a job. I applied, applied, and applied again to several organizations. I did not know much about UJA but then again Rocky saved the day. Besides for being an awesome friend, she’s a great mentor and role model. I see a lot of Syrian women struggling with a lack of exposure to a variety of jobs. Up until my junior year at Barnard, I only thought I could be a psychologist, a teacher, or a consultant. I never thought that I would be able to find a job that could combine so many of my interests. The job was a mixed bag of lots of different things, so I thought it would help expose me to lots of different types of work. My role has recently shifted— I’m working in what’s called the Community Lab, a really cool department at UJA that works directly with the community, responding to local needs and providing professional development and leadership opportunities. Within this department, I continue to design programs that help to foster professional and Jewish leadership. I also manage scholarships for a wide swath of the community. It’s the perfect fit for me. I’m working with lots of different members of the community – from undergraduate/graduate students all the way to executives at UJA’s agencies. I speak with lots of people every day, and it feels like camp. I ended up applying for this job, not knowing much about the organization (sorry UJA!) and I quickly fell in love with the work.
Tell me about graduate school:
I work in a very academic organization and felt a tremendous amount of pressure to pursue a degree. I paused and spoke to a lot of different colleagues and friends and realized that unless I really needed a degree, it was not the time to go. I finally got to a point where I needed a degree to grow in my career, and that was a master’s in nonprofit management. I needed concrete hard skills to manage talent, finance, fundraising priorities etc . I'm in a program at NYU in the Robert Wagner School for Public Service. It's an MPA—a master’s in public administration with a focus on nonprofit management. I'm at UJA full time and I'm at school 3/4 of the time. I take three classes instead of four each semester and it should take me about 2.5 to 3 years.
How do you balance your busy schedule?
A few answers. My first answer is that I'm married to a great partner. We both take on new challenges and opportunities and encourage each other to do so. My husband is also pursuing a degree, which is super cool. I love coming home to a space where we're both learning and excited about what we are doing. The other piece is that I have become much more aware of the fact that women have to be a lot more creative than I feel men have to be. I'm fortunate enough to work in an organization where there are mostly professional, smart, and educated women – and they're all different. UJA’s workforce contains many different models of what it looks like to have family and Jewish life. I've seen women balance their lives in many different ways. I’m hoping that as more women in the Syrian community enter the workforce there will be more models for what it looks like to balance work/personal life.
At the time when I was thinking about pursuing this degree, I actually hesitated and said it's too much to take on working full time. I don't know how I'll do it, it seems like a lot. And my supervisor, who's been a tremendous mentor, actually recognized that I was going to miss this opportunity because I was holding myself back. And as Sheryl Sandberg said, "You don't leave, until you leave." So my supervisor offered me the flexibility to go to school. UJA is supporting me in pursuing this degree in many ways . I'm in and out of the office all the time and that flexibility is something that I've been fortunate to have. My supervisor offered a very creative solution, opening my narrow view about how one would pursue a degree and balance school and life and wife and everything – she helped me view this pursuit through a different, more creative lens.
I've had to learn to balance and prioritize, so on a day like today I'm doing groceries at 8am and I'm going to be cooking all night. Because I want to. I'm not superwoman. I don't love women to have that perception of others because I don't believe you can do it all, especially not without help. I believe you can do it all at different times or at different levels. I believe in asking for help. There's a new concept out there called 'drop the ball'. I think it’s vital to be comfortable saying “This is something I can’t do right now,” and knowing how you can leverage your great home and work lives to get done what you’ve decided to prioritize.
What advice would you give someone looking to work in the nonprofit sector?
Within the non-profit sector specifically, there are a lot of cool and interesting positions. If you have interests and passions and you need to find a way to connect the dots, there is a space within the Jewish non-profit sector for a lot of different types of professionals seeking meaningful work. I'm combining lots of different interests and passions. If you’re interested in nonprofit work, I would say to think firstly about what would be meaningful for you in terms of work. Is there a mission or cause that you're passionate about? What content of work is interesting to you? Second, what kind of work environment would you prefer? And third, what are your skill sets and areas of expertise? And I believe that, with some creativity, at least two of those areas can be weaved together. Hopefully all three.
Where do you see yourself in the future with UJA?
I'm particularly interested in continuing to help build and shape Jewish communities in need. I’m not sure exactly where I’ll end up next, but I have some ideas. At UJA, we’re committed to building self-sufficient communities through strategic grant making and research. We examine the root causes of large-scale social crises such as lack of employment, mental health challenges, and food security. I'd like to be able to take part in this work. I'm hoping that this master’s will equip me with skills to think critically about these issues and approach them through a variety of lenses.