Kohrman Touches Thousands of Lives Everywhere He Goes
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by MCKENNA CORSON | STAFF REPORTER
To many people in Cleveland, Israel and where his aid has far reached across the globe, S. Lee Kohrman is a Jewish philanthropist, attorney and leader with a passion to leave the world a better place.
But to many leaders who worked hand-in-hand with the retiring president of the David and Inez Myers Foundation for 24 years, they know him as the true man he is: a friend and mentor with determined views, one with an intimidating shell, yet loving interior, and a motivation that if harnessed, could replace Israel’s source of electricity.
Jewish Federation of Cleveland
Erika B. Rudin-Luria, president of the Jewish Federation of Cleveland in Beachwood, vividly remembers the first real conversation she had with Kohrman.
He called Rudin-Luria after viewing the 2011 Cleveland Jewish Population Study, where he saw families had indicated they weren’t involved in Jewish life or Jewish camps because they didn’t feel a part of the Jewish community or couldn’t afford the camps, synagogues or institutions.
“He said, ‘I want to find those kids, we need to get those kids to camp,’” Rudin-Luria recalled. “‘How do we go about finding kids that are on no list in the Jewish community, but we know that they exist?’”
He addressed the problem by working with Jewish Family Services Association of Cleveland and the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland to find those in-need Jewish children, Rudin-Luria said.
“That was the beginning of the launch of what today is known as the Myers (Foundation’s) Campership Outreach program, which last summer sent over 100 kids to Jewish overnight camp,” Rudin-Luria said. “Lee and the Myers (Foundation’s) Campership Outreach program has truly impacted countless families’ lives.”
Rudin-Luria fondly remembers visiting Camp Wise in Claridon Township, a camp owned and operated by the Mandel Jewish Community Center, with Kohrman and Leslie Dunn, the new president of the David and Inez Myers Foundation, for research during the creation of the Campership Outreach program.
During this visit, Rudin-Luria saw more to the man she was working with as he spoke to the children to get information for the budding program.
“You could see his heart while he was interacting with the campers,” Rudin-Luria said. “He’s always very curious. (He asked them) what do they love about camp, what do they bring home with them from camp, what do they want him to know about their camping experience. With each conversation, you could see Lee’s brain working to figure out how is it that we could do more.”
While Rudin-Luria’s hands-on camp research stopped with Camp Wise, Kohrman’s had just begun.
“Lee drove hours to visit different overnight camps that Myers (Foundation’s) Campership Outreach kids attended so that he could get to know the camps,” Rudin-Luria said. “He wanted to make sure that it was a high-quality experience. We all know that visiting a camp is far different than hearing about it, and he wanted to make sure that he was knowledgeable.”
Throughout her work with the Federation, Rudin-Luria said she has found her time with Kohrman to be one from which she’ll continue to pull meaningful, teachable moments.
“Lee has always inspired us and pushed us to do more,” Rudin-Luria said. “He is all about the people who are being served – that’s what drives him in everything. He pushes on things that he is passionate about, and he has shown a willingness to engage about difficult subjects. ”
From their travels together to St. Petersburg, Russia, and to Camp Wise, Rudin-Luria said she will never forget Kohrman’s superpower.
“As we’d meet different people, Lee focused in on each one and their situation,” Rudin-Luria said. “He’s someone that has the ability to look at and think about an individual and an entire group, and say, ‘How can we have more of an impact here?’”
Stephen H. Hoffman
Former Federation president Stephen H. Hoffman and Kohrman have more than 40 years of shared memories, hard work and a love for making a difference.
Hoffman vaguely knew of Kohrman before becoming president, but their Federation involvements ignited a strong and lasting friendship Hoffman said he wouldn’t give up for anything in the world.
Kohrman chaired a Federation group that developed programs for Parents and Children Together, an educational support program that helps Ethiopian children pass pre-kindergarten and kindergarten, and Havat HaShomer, a military base run by the Israel Defense Forces that gives soldiers of any socioeconomic or educational background a chance to train and fight.
These involvements – while only dipping a pinkie toe into the craterous pool of Kohrman’s work – created efforts Hoffman still considers Kohrman’s most impactful.
“I admire Lee’s deep passion for Israel,” Hoffman said. “He just kept pursuing that love of Israel and its people. All the work we did with the Ethiopian kids – he loves kids. He just cares a lot about kids.”
One of Hoffman’s favorite memories is when Kohrman served as North America’s co-chairman of the Ethiopian National Project, an organization that seeks to unite Israel’s government and Ethiopian-Israelis. Kohrman relinquished the position at the end of 2014 after holding it for 10 years.
“He was fearless in going into the Israeli government offices, literally demanding that they live up to their obligations to help the Ethiopian-Israeli citizens,” Hoffman said. “He could browbeat them; he was passionate and relentless. It was like he was the attorney for the Ethiopian citizens of Israel vis-a-vis the Israeli government at one point – that’s how he acted. It was an amazing thing to behold.”
Hoffman recalled Kohrman’s charitable efforts that helped carve the sister city relationship with the Jewish community in St. Petersburg following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. No matter the distance or situation, Kohrman would be the first to provide assistance to any Jew in need, no matter the distance or situation.
“He would be trudging up and down many flights of stairs to visit older people to learn how we could help and to see how the services of the community were being delivered to the Jews in St. Petersburg,” Hoffman said. “We did the same thing in Argentina together when the economy collapsed. (When Lee was president of the Myers Foundation), we went to Buenos Aires to meet with the community and to see what we could do to help. In those days, wherever there was a Jewish community in distress, Lee made sure to be there to see how we could help.”
From the Campership Outreach program to the work with Ethiopian children, Hoffman applauded every one of Kohrman’s efforts.
But while the work he did was revolutionary, Kohrman was also a person who encouraged those around him to be their very best.
“Lee is somebody who’s constantly challenging you,” Hoffman said. “He’s always raising questions; he’s always raising the bar. He’s never satisfied. We can always do better. That’s great to have someone push you like that.”
As someone who’s known Kohrman for almost 50 years, Hoffman has learned a thing or two about his good friend.
“He can have a very gruff exterior, but he has a marshmallow inside when it comes to kids and their needs,” Hoffman said. “Lee’s also very smart. When we were exploring gifts to (give) Israeli universities (through the Myers Foundation,) we were looking into the areas we were thinking of investing in. I was blown away by how much he understood about the sciences we were considering funding. I thought he was just a lawyer, but he’s more of a Renaissance guy.”
While these specific gifts were made around 2000 as Hoffman recalled, Kohrman guaranteed to match every need of the Myers Foundation to make the foundation’s namesakes proud.
“It was an important cause to David and Inez, and so we were continuing that interest,” Hoffman said. “Lee was enormously faithful to the values and interests of David and Inez because that was their foundation he was chairing. They were gone, but he made sure that their name would be remembered as a blessing.”
Words, BBYO International CEO Matt Grossman discovered, have the ability to change worlds.
To Grossman, Kohrman’s words have helped him with everything from financial decisions to his Jewish views.
“One of the things I really appreciate about Lee is that his opinions come from a deep and intellectually driven perspective on what’s good for the world,” Grossman said. “We’ve had discussions about the difference between Jewish values and universal values, which have been critical to my own thinking about Judaism.”
When he first met Kohrman in 2004 after taking over as executive director of BBYO, Grossman was a little hesitant.
“I remember when I first met Lee, I was frankly intimidated,” Grossman said. “I saw him as an incredibly sharp, authoritative voice that was ready to challenge me. What I realized shortly thereafter is that it was all done out of love for BBYO, his mission and to bring out the best in me as a person. ... I love the man. He’s one of the great blessings in my life, and I’ll do anything for him.”
As a previous BBYO board member and former Myers Foundation president, Grossman believes Kohrman’s contribution to BBYO is immeasurable.
“When you think of what Lee has meant to BBYO, you think about what his grandchildren have meant to (the organization),” Grossman said. “Almost all of them have been through the program, served in leadership roles and brought their energy, intellect and inspiration – which obviously come from him as their grandfather.
“The other thing he brought was a voice of moral reason, always making sure our decisions were rooted in what’s right for the Jewish community and where we could add value as Jews to the world.”
Each year, BBYO has matched the funding from the David and Inez Myers Foundation to allow teens from Cleveland who didn’t have the economic means to attend BBYO’s international convention. Kohrman made sure to attend every year to show his support.
Grossman chuckled as he recently recalled Kohrman – over 90 years old – attending the convention surrounded by 3,000 teens “acting wonderfully chaotic.”
“(Kohrman was) sort of sitting back with his arms folded and a giant smile on his face,” Grossman said. “A lot of adults would have questioned, ‘What is all of this about?’ (But) he knew exactly what it was about: the power of young people coming together, celebrating what it means to be Jewish and acting on the power of their youth.”
Grossman estimates there will never be a complete list of all the organizations and people Kohrman affected, but that just contributes to his magic.
“Lee’s legacy will be the fact that people don’t know all the work that he’s done, because he does it quietly, humbly,” Grossman said. “He doesn’t look for fanfare. He puts making a difference above all else.”
Mandel Jewish Community Center
The first time Michael Hyman, the president and CEO of the Mandel Jewish Community Center in Beachwood, met Kohrman, it was at Camp Wise in the early 2000s.
The meeting was to discuss the extensive dining hall renovations that would be paid for by a Myers Foundation leadership gift to the Federation’s Centennial Campaign, Hyman said.
“We walked around camp for quite a while and talked about how the dollars were going to be invested, what the changes were, the improvements that would be made to the camp facility,” Hyman said. “It took us into a conversation about Lee’s passion for Jewish overnight camps and the impact that it has on kids.”
As the two men walked around Camp Wise’s wooded grounds, Kohrman opened up to Hyman.
“Lee told me that he never had the opportunity to go to overnight camp as a child; his parents couldn’t afford it,” Hyman said. “Later on, as he came to understand and recognize the importance of the Jewish camping experience and building the Jewish identity of children and teenagers, he reflected back to his own experience. But he didn’t have that. He said, ‘Gee, this is so important for kids in our community as they grow up.’ This commitment has been a driving force for Lee over his years – that children and teenagers from our Jewish community need to have a Jewish overnight camping experience.”
Years after their initial meeting, support from the Myers Foundation for the Mandel JCC and Camp Wise continued to come. A Myers Foundation leadership gift helped underwrite the renovation costs of the Mandel JCC’s early childhood wing. Another Myers Foundation leadership gift enabled Mandel JCC to build a new infirmary at Camp Wise.
“He understands the important work that we do at the Mandel JCC in building and strengthening our Jewish community,” Hyman said. “There’s been continuous support.”
On top of the “significant” monetary support Kohrman has given Mandel JCC, his establishment of the Campership Outreach program has brought additional children and teens who might not have experienced Jewish summer camp without Kohrman’s assistance to Camp Wise.
Since the program’s start in the summer of 2012 to last summer, 192 different youngsters have entered Camp Wise through the Campership Outreach program, Hyman said.
“These are all things that enable us to fulfill our mission of building a strong and cohesive Jewish community, of enhancing the quality of life and ensuring the continuity of Jewish life in our community,” Hyman said.
To Hyman, Kohrman is a friend he looks up to and respects immensely. Kohrman’s efforts done for the protection of Judaism are ones Hyman will always find inspirational.
“Lee is a visionary leader who gets things done,” Hyman said. “All of the work that he’s done at the Myers Foundation over the years, as a leader in our Jewish community, that’s his priority: the quality of and continuity of Jewish life. I admire him deeply and all the work he’s done for the J.”
Mt. Sinai Health Care Foundation
Before Kohrman attended Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Mass., to become an attorney, a different career path tickled his fancy for a bit – one where he would have been called Dr. Kohrman, had it been his calling.
Despite leaving medical school after a couple months, his interest in the world of medicine never did.
He served as the founding board chair of the Mt. Sinai Health Care Foundation in Cleveland, the foundation he helped create following the sale of the Mt. Sinai Medical Center that he represented as the center’s attorney.
A few years later, Kohrman met Mitchell Balk, president of the Mt. Sinai Health Care Foundation.
The Mt. Sinai Health Care Foundation was new – it would aid Greater Cleveland’s communities through financial support.
“With Lee’s help, we established a new grant-making resource for Cleveland that was not just about writing checks,” Balk said. “It was about being strategic, having the ends in mind and then dividing road-maps to get us to those ends. He was invaluable as our founding board chair.”
Kohrman’s interest in medicine only seemed to increase as he and the board worked to improve Cleveland’s health and add new partnerships.
“He was a terrific advocate for the field of academic medicine,” Balk said. “He’s always had an interest in teaching and research medicine – that guided us in our relationship with the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine.”
Balk will never forget when he was asked to become the initial head of the foundation after working the grant-seeking side of the business for most of his career. Kohrman allowed Balk to hire a high-ranking former officer of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the nation’s largest public health philanthropy, as a consultant and mentor to assist Balk with his new position.
“Even though there was a lot of pressure to open immediately and begin grant-making, (Lee) saw that this foundation was going to be around for a very long time,” Balk said. “He encouraged me to take the time to do it right; you don’t just open up.”
Balk learned the special way Kohrman treated all the grants he considered – with a sense of uniqueness yet reality for each case.
“He has a lot of passion, but he uses his incredible mind to bring a certain toughness to the decisions that need to be made, recognizing that resources are finite,” Balk said. “And so, the way he approaches grant-making is, align the funds with document and deed, but also figure out what can additionally add to the solution because money is finite.”
To Balk, Kohrman is a man who loves the Jewish community. It’s no surprise to Balk the Jewish community in Cleveland, Israel and around the world loves him back.
“I admire the fact that he has cast his lot with the Jewish people, and he is guided by a love for the Jewish people – a love in everything he does,” Balk said. “He is beloved in Israel. He has invested heavily in so many sectors of Israeli society to advance the nation’s economy and its medical sciences, having created/ endowed chairs in medicine in every medical school in Israel, all stemming from his love of the Jewish people.”
Jewish Family Service Association of Cleveland
To Susan Bichsel, president and CEO of Jewish Family Service Association of Cleveland in Pepper Pike, Kohrman is someone not afraid to push the envelope when making change. That reason, and a myriad more, is why she admires him.
“Lee is a standout person; he is different than a lot of other leaders in the community,” Bichsel said. “I think he’ll often think, say and take a stand on things that people maybe haven’t thought of before. He is ahead of the curve in some ways, and that helps cause innovation to occur.”
His forward thinking is what sparked the invention of the Campership Outreach program JFSA Cleveland operates with funding from the Myers Foundation and JEC.
The Myers Foundation has provided the program with more than $3.5 million since its commencement in 2012.
When Kohrman contacted JFSA about starting the program, Bichsel was shocked. JFSA and the Myers Foundation had never worked together and his passionate pitch of bringing local Jewish children who weren’t on any lists to summer camps needed plenty of flushing out.
Additional organizations like the Federation and the JEC provided assistance to find the in-need kids, develop programming the children could use when not in camp and additional funding.
“We were willing to give it a go, but for a variety of reasons, this was not something that just everyone wanted to jump on,” Bichsel said. “It required taking some risks, and it required pulling together a couple of ideas that in and of themselves were good ideas, but putting them all together required taking some risks. It ended up being a great idea and a great outcome.”
The Campership Outreach program proved to build on aspects of JFSA Bichsel hadn’t initially thought of but she is thankful for in the long run.
“The campership program is much more connected to the idea of Jewish identity and ‘who I am as a Jewish person?’ It builds much more directly on the concept of ‘I belong in the Jewish community,’ and ‘I am connected to the Jewish community,’” Bichsel said. “It strengthens ties for the long-term. Doing that in such a new, innovative and much more direct way was really different for us.”
Bichsel found the entire process of working with Kohrman for the first time a dream. He was motivated to complete the Campership Outreach program, and he would see it through to the end.
“Lee asks tough questions, and he has very high expectations,” Bichsel said. “But he has a very clear vision. That makes working with him a real privilege, because there’s nothing ambiguous about him. That helps steer you in the right direction.
“The program had to be developed (at the start), but where we wanted to go was very clear. We met outcomes after the first year. After that, it was, ‘Can we do a little better?’ ‘What did we miss?’ ‘Is there some other piece that we’re missing, some other thing that could be enhanced?’ That’s how he cares about excellence.”
To those who don’t understand the importance of a Jewish summer camp experience, Bichsel stressed Kohrman’s brainchild lasts well after the pools have drained and once roaring camp fires under the sparkling stars have become soot.
“I think an important piece about this program is that there’s the impact of today, which is the (kids) going to camp and learning about who they are and how their faith is a part of who they are,” Bichsel said. “The impact is also about tomorrow – who (the kids are) going to develop into, who and what they’ll mean for the community in 15 or 20 years, and what they’ll bring back because of what they’re learning about themselves today (due to) their connection to the community.”
After establishing the program, Kohrman and the JFSA team quickly noticed a problem: the kids and teens receiving financial assistance to attend Jewish summer camps stood out for the wrong reason.
“All the other kids had just spent the (past) two months buying all new stuff for camp, so they were showing up with brand new duffle bags, sheets, shampoo and all this stuff,” Bichsel said. “If you’re coming from a home of poverty, or one that barely scrapes by, you’re showing up with nothing basically. Or (because) your parents have not been sending you away to sleep-away camp for the last five years, you don’t even know what it is you’re supposed to arrive with.”
Kohrman wasn’t going to let any additional variables stand in the way of the campers receiving the Myers Foundation’s financial assistance from having a perfect summer. These kids would get the Jewish summer camp experience he never had growing up.
“Lee arranged for us to be able to get new big duffles, towels, sheets and basic toiletries for (every Campership Outreach participant) so that when that kid showed up at camp, they looked like every other kid,” Bichsel said. “It took away any ability to stigmatize these kids and prevent that from becoming an obstacle to them, all so that they’d be embraced in the community.
“This showed the two sides of Lee: just a really incredible thinker with this laser focus, but also the ability to understand those more subtle pieces of the matter to make it all work.”
Bichsel went from knowing of Kohrman to having a deep understanding of the multifaceted man he is, thanks to the Campership Outreach program.
“You meet him, and you think that he’s kind of intimidating, hard-hitting and demanding of excellence, but he also has this incredible soft spot for people in need,” Bichsel said. “A lot of these families obviously had great need, and whatever the need was, he was incredibly responsive to it if it was going to improve their situation, if it was going to enable them or remove an obstacle so that they could have their family member get to camp.”
But above all else, Bichsel learned of Kohrman’s unexpected and unyielding dedication to improve children’s lives no matter the cost on his own.
“You have this incredibly accomplished attorney who’s got this whole professional life and everything he’s done as a professional, but he would get in the car on a weekend, drive eight hours to visit one of these camps and interview the people running them to really determine, ‘Is this a place I want to support and send kids to?’ ‘Is it going to have an impact on kids in the way that I want it to?’” Bichsel said. “Which I think is rather amazing. I mean, how many of my staff would even do that?”
Jewish Education Center of Cleveland
To Marlyn Bloch Jaffe, associate director and director of planning and evaluation at the Jewish Education Center of Cleveland in Cleveland Heights, it was the little things Kohrman did that showed her he truly cared about the diverse work he did in the community.
“The everyday interactions, the phone calls, the emails, asking what’s happening and genuinely caring, catching up over breakfast, brainstorming ideas,” Jaffe said.
These interactions led to what Jaffe admires most about Kohrman: his desire to selflessly help those in need.
“He always has his eye on who is being helped,” Jaffe said. “It’s never about the program; it’s not about the institutions. He talks about the kids or the families.”
Every day as she’d come into the JEC office, Jaffe would be greeted by two smiling and familiar-looking faces framed among their wall of presidents: Kohrman’s father, Max, for his presidency of the Bureau of Jewish Education – JEC’s predecessor – in the 1950s, and Kohrman, for following in his father’s footsteps and serving the same presidency in the 1970s.
Over the years, Kohrman presented new ideas with means to support them to the JEC, including the Campership Outreach program, Jaffe said.
After getting kids to camp, JEC strove to extend their Jewish experiences well after their marshmallows had been toasted and sleeping bags put into storage.
“Campership is very directly engaging kids after camp in other activities during the year, so that it’s not just a four-week experience but trying to keep that during the school year,” Jaffe said. “We’re hooking kids up to youth groups and other programming like jHUB (and BBYO).
“Lee likes to be kept informed. He meets with the director (of jHUB) several times a year and has other conversations with jHUB staff about what’s happening.”
Once the Campership Outreach program was in full swing, Jaffe was reminded of her favorite attribute of Kohrman.
“With campership and BBYO, he always talks about the kids; with jHUB, it’s the families,” Jaffe said. “It’s not about the program; it’s not about the institution. It’s about who’s at the center of the experience: the kids (or families)”
Jaffe attributed Kohrman’s success to his ability to see different viewpoints and his leadership style. He also made sure to stay updated and informed on the projects he was involved in.
“He has a hands-on nature, not in a micromanaging way, but really caring both about the big picture and the small picture,” Jaffe said. “He’s both a funder and a thought partner, and he’s both very visionary and cares deeply about the details.”
After each conversation spanning their 20-year friendship, Jaffe is confident Kohrman’s intellect is unbeatable.
“He happens to be one of the most intelligent people I know,” Jaffe said. “It sharpens you to think clearer, focus really on what the goals are and how to measure effectiveness. He asks all those really deep, penetrating questions in a really supportive way, but (it also comes as) a challenge.”
To the man whose work is rarely seen but frequently felt by the Jewish community, Jaffe cannot express enough praise to Kohrman.
“Lee is just a super phenomenal human being who’s really impacted hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of kids and families in Cleveland,” Jaffe said.
Joint Distribution Committee
In Israel is the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute, the nation’s leading center for applied social research.
The institute was established in 1974 through an independent, nonprofit partnership between the Joint Distribution Committee, the Israeli government and the David and Inez Myers Foundation.
The institute had been chaired by Kohrman, who continued to bestow multi-million-dollar gifts to it so the institute could continue researching social challenges.
“He has been an active partner, helping shape the direction that the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute has taken,” Asher Ostrin, Joint Distribution Committee interim CEO, wrote in an email. “Because he is so admired and respected, his input was highly valued.”
He is also a life trustee and executive committee member of the JDC, the international Jewish humanitarian organization striving to protect the world’s Jews and create a strong Jewish future.
“He has incredible integrity, intelligence, warmth, compassion and vision,” Ostrin said. “He has been personally generous, and he has also brought the Myers Foundation into JDC.”
Over Ostrin and Kohrman’s 25 years of knowing one another, Ostrin discovered that despite the plethora of work Kohrman does, he doesn’t do it for personal gain.
“There is probably a lot people don’t know about him, because on top of everything, he is very modest,” Ostrin said. “His input is never ‘about him.’ It is for the better of the institution or organization.”