Corrected May 15, 2020
The thing about Stan Cohen was his voice.
Toni Bickart, who knew Cohen for decades through Adas Israel Congregation, said that Cohen had the “rich baritone” of a radio announcer. Sandy Mendelson, who also knew Cohen through the synagogue, said that Cohen’s voice was such that, whatever statement came out of his mouth, it had the weight of the definite.
Cohen died on April 20 at the age of 86 after contracting COVID-19. His wife, Sue Ducat, said that what mattered about her husband’s voice wasn’t the way that it sounded. It was that he had absolutely no compunction about using it for what he thought was right.
He had a knack for asking the question that no one else wanted to ask, she said. And he didn’t care about the cringing that came when he asked it.
Cohen was born in Saint John, New Brunswick, a seaport city in eastern Canada. His father, Harry, sold suits in a department store, and his mother, Mary, was a homemaker. Stan Cohen and his sister, Annie, grew up in the Jewish community of Saint John; in fact, Cohen was proud of his service on the Young Judean executive and regional committees for many years after his service ended.
Cohen studied journalism and English at New York University, where he met his first wife, Barbara. They married on New Year’s Eve 1955, and the couple lived in New York until 1962, when they moved to Montreal.
In Montreal, Cohen grew as an educator and a writer, teaching at a high school for girls while writing for the Montreal Star on the weekends, where he would eventually become an editor. Meanwhile, he and Barbara had three children, Rachel, Lissa and Norman. The two of them nurtured their passion for Jewish communal life, performing together in a Yiddish drama group. Cohen was a board member and officer at Congregation Dorshei Emet, a Reconstructionist synagogue, and was a part of the Canadian Jewish Congress.
In 1977, Cohen moved to Washington, where he’d landed a job as a regulations quality officer at the Department of Education. (The rest of the family would follow in 1979.) In Washington, the Cohens found Adas Israel, the Conservative synagogue that Stan Cohen attended for the rest of his life.
At Adas Israel and at his children’s school, now known as the Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School, Cohen made his presence felt. Never hindered by a need for subtlety or shyness, Cohen frequently spoke up in meetings, forcefully advocating on behalf of this measure or that.
Vociferously as he may have argued, those who found themselves in the room for such occasions — or even, God help them, on the opposing side — knew that Cohen was acting out of love for the institutions to which he belonged.
“He cared about Adas Israel the way one cares about members of a family,” said Bickart, who was president of the synagogue after serving on the board with Cohen for years. Ducat, who married Cohen in 1988, after Barbara’s death, said that her husband was not one to pursue incremental changes. Gently, she’d try to coax him to prioritize, to ask for one thing at a time.
“He said, ‘I want them all!’ And he charged forward,” she said.
Ducat and Cohen met at a WETA holiday party; Ducat had worked there with Barbara, which is how she met Cohen.
Together, Ducat and Cohen adopted a daughter, Hannah, which further extended Cohen’s reign as the loudest voice at the school board meeting.
In fact, when he returned for a board meeting while Hannah attended Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, his appearance so surprised another board member that they felt compelled to ask Cohen about his return.
The voice made sure there were changes at Adas Israel and the Milton School, but also the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington and The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.
The voice could be heard, in later years, calling out from soccer field sidelines, basketball benches and baseball dugouts, as Cohen the Teacher and Cohen the Writer became Cohen the Coach, for Hannah.
He was a “striking individual,” in Mendelson’s words. “He had some very good ideas, and some crazy ones, like all of us have.”
Cohen never missed an Adas Israel board meeting, even as he moved from feet to cane to walker to wheelchair. After an accident last year, it was only the voice that was left, as he called into meetings.
It was also last year that Ducat finally convinced him to retire from the Department of Education. Ducat was reluctant to throw him his requested retirement party so soon after his accident, but finally, in January, the two of them worked together to plan a March 31 extravaganza. The party never happened, a casualty of quarantine, and Cohen passed away just a few weeks after the scheduled date.
Jesse Bernstein is a writer for the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent, an affiliated publication of Washington Jewish Week.
Corrections were made to this story on Stan Cohen’s age when he died (86) and the government department where he worked (Department of Education).