From a napkin big ideas grow

Above, Jeffrey Cohen (center) was a driving force behind the Circle@Crown Café at Crown Center for Senior Living, where Cohen is a past board president. Photo: Kristi Foster

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Returning from a fact-finding mission to Chicago, Jeffrey Cohen found himself so full of ideas he couldn’t even wait until he got home. He and his travel companions from the board of directors at the Gladys & Henry Crown Center for Senior Living began sketching out ideas on a napkin while still sitting in the airport.

“A lot of boards are not as hands-on,” Cohen says from a 12th floor conference room at the law firm Capes Sokol in Clayton. “In particular, this one, at the board level, you have opportunities to participate on committees and get into the weeds and really do the work of the agency.”

That’s something that Cohen, 47 and a native of St. Louis, loves to do. It has driven his success as a corporate and real estate lawyer.He made this year’s St. Louis Small Business Monthly list of the Top 100 St. Louisans to Know to Succeed in Business.

Crown Center is certainly glad to know him. It is his work in the community that truly sets him apart. Cohen’s napkin scribblings turned into the Circle@Crown, an innovative café-style gathering place that helps connect seniors at the center with others from the surrounding community.

Beth Shalom Cemetery ad

“He is able to see and have a vision for the big picture, as well as being willing to help and volunteer and interact with our clients helping to serve dinner,” Nikki Goldstein, Crown Center’s executive director, said of Cohen, who gives his time to assist in the dining area. “From the macro to the micro, Jeff is engaged 100 percent and will do whatever is needed in order to make sure that Crown Center is really the best it can be for our residents and for seniors in the community.”

Cohen, who won Crown’s Leadership Award in 2015, said his desire to lend a hand came from the values of his parents, Marla and Ed.

“I was always hearing about my mom and dad and how they volunteered in the community,” he said. “It wasn’t always necessarily about giving money away. It was more about making sure you spent time in the community, got out there and did the work yourself.”

Cohen has been doing that at Crown for more than 15 years and is on its Lifetime Council. He says he didn’t have much knowledge about the organization when a family friend first talked to him about it.

“I literally thought it had something to do with Crown Candy Kitchen,” he chuckled in reference to the north St. Louis ice cream restaurant famous for its malted milkshakes. “That’s how little I knew about it.”

But he said Goldstein’s leadership and an active board quickly impressed him by putting residents’ needs first in the Circle project, which wasn’t just about building a flashy facility but about improving lives and connecting people.

“For me, that was very rewarding to be able to see that from the beginning all the way to the ribbon cutting,” he said. “Now, a couple of years later, we’ve seen how the café is evolving, and it has really become a model for what other agencies are looking at.”

Cohen has also been involved with Camp Sabra, of which he is a supporter as well as a former camper. He  chaired the capital campaign for the Jewish Community Center’s summer camp.

Lynn Wittels, president and CEO of the St. Louis Jewish Community Center, calls him the “world’s greatest Sabra cheerleader” and said he also has helped her institution with free legal work. Cohen is an introspective, thoughtful and hard-working community leader, she said, all reasons why he’s just been invited to join the J’s board of directors.

“I’m really looking forward to working with him on helping to set the strategic direction of the agency,” Wittels said. “I think he’ll be a great addition.”

Cohen says the J has a big role to play in keeping Jewish life vibrant.

“We can’t simply rely upon the temples and the synagogues to make sure that happens,” said Cohen, who attends United Hebrew. “I think it is some of these other activities that are not as religiously focused but really do build up community among Jews that are important.”

He also has advice for others thinking about volunteering their time to a cause. Professionals may be tempted to focus on their areas of expertise, but Cohen said he’s found it is rewarding to pull himself outside of his comfort zone and explore new areas.

“It’s important to stick your neck out and get outside your sweet spot, because you can bring a fresh set of eyes to different issues,” he said. 

Jeffrey Cohen

Age: 47

Family: He and wife, Michelle, have two children

Occupation: Lawyer

Home: Ladue

Fun Fact: Cohen has other skills outside the legal world. For starters, he knows how to juggle.