By Ellen Braunstein
Corrected Feb. 11 12:45 p.m.
Alexis Cohen is a women’s philanthropy leader who knows the importance of building a cohesive community in Northern Virginia, where the Jewish population is spread out, fast growing and making connections is a challenge.
Both outgoing and welcoming, Cohen, 43, is a volunteer go-getter. As co-chair of The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s young women’s community group Ora, Cohen brings together Jewish women in their 30s and 40s for socializing, networking, learning and fundraising.
“I’ve only been here five years, but I can pull 50 people in a room pretty easily now. It’s really important to me to spark that interest,” she says.
Physical gatherings are on pause, but in a post-COVID time, she’ll be ready. “It kind of hit when I was hitting my stride. So, I haven’t been pushing as hard as I was before.”
As a Lion of Judah — the women’s philanthropy arm of Federation — Cohen sees her role as “one that supports the community financially and, by investing my time to meet other Jews, I engage with them in strengthening Jewish community.”
To make the Northern Virginia community more vibrant and cohesive, Cohen says, “We have to find out where everybody is. We need to do a ton of outreach to make those connections, to attract and retain people. You have to make those events feel fun, like you’re hanging out with your friends. And friends of friends.”
Cohen has lived in Chicago, New York City, San Diego, Indianapolis and now in Vienna, having moved for her husband’s career as a pediatric orthopedist. All along, she’s worked for major corporations such as IBM and Morgan Stanley on big-data projects. “I’m passionate about helping people through technology, making things easier, more accessible.”
Now she consults from home, where she is also mom to two boys, Isaac, 12, and Zachary, 10. The family belongs to Congregation Olam Tikvah in Fairfax. “They are great kids who will be assets to society when they move out. That’s my proudest accomplishment.”
Cohen grew up in a deeply engaged Jewish family in a heavily Jewish suburb in northern Chicago. Her father was treasurer of a Conservative synagogue and her mother started the synagogue’s Hebrew high school.
Young Alexis developed a strong Jewish identity as a leader in youth groups. Her project to digitize her synagogue’s large library foretold a career in computers, but as a 15 year old she just loved books and wanted to be a librarian. That changed at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, where she majored in computer engineering and economics.
After college, “as I moved from place to place, I noticed that, unlike Chicago, maintaining a strong Jewish identity wasn’t the mandate everywhere.”
She forged ahead and involved herself with the JCC and Federation, “gathering people to as many events as possible.”
In Northern Virginia, she observed that “it wasn’t really a given that people were going to go to an event. There’s all these pockets of Jews and not one cohesive group. So, it’s really hard to plan for something that would have mass appeal.”
She helped organize everything from Israeli wine tastings to philanthropy discussions to an anti-Semitism event at a local synagogue.
Cohen’s most important Jewish value is tikkun olam, repairing the world. “We give to others who are not as fortunate as we are. We have food on our plates and we’re very comfortable. Especially this past year, we’ve been giving to help and secure food for families in need.”
The family makes regular donations to Food for Others, based in Fairfax. “They’re a great charity.”
Cohen wants to make a stronger Jewish world for her and her family in Northern Virginia.
“There are many we don’t know who need our help or want to connect with the Jewish community. No matter where you come from, no matter what you look like, if you want to do something Jewish, I want to give you that opportunity to get involved through The Federation.”
This story was changed to reflect Alexis Cohen’s correct age, the college she attended and her mother’s Jewish involvement. It also now reflects the type of venue where the anti-Semitism event was held.