Steve Cohen is the president of the Negotiations Skills Company, and over the years he has served as an executive coach and mentor, an academic and a writer. He is married to Andréa MacLeod, a journalist and the former publisher of the North Shore Woman Directory. Their older daughter, Julia, is chair of the English Department at the Field School in Washington, D.C. and mother of Eli (8) and Pip (5). Abigail, their younger daughter, most recently served as an Associate Dean of Accessibility at a New England liberal arts college.
Could you tell us about your upbringing – where you grew up, a little about your parents and siblings and your family’s Jewish priorities?
I am the oldest of Martin and Alice Cohen’s four children. Martin E. Cohen was born in Chelsea and was a pioneer shopping center developer in New England. Among other things, his civic involvement included Temple Ahavat Achim (Gloucester) and a variety of initiatives for the benefit of Gloucester. Alice (Wander) Cohen, a native of Albany, NY, a talented sculptor and equestrian, was involved with many nonprofits including the Wellspring House and Windrush Farm. My siblings, Laura (Lexington), Gil (West Palm Beach), and Burt (New Castle, NH) are all active volunteers: feeding the hungry, aiding immigrants, mentoring needy students, and involved in public/civic affairs.
I learned to read at the Devotion School in Brookline’s Coolidge Corner before my family moved to Newton, attended school in Newton, got my high school diploma from Mount Hermon School, a BA from Brandeis University, a J.D. from Columbia Law School, and a M.Phil from Henley Management College (UK).
My paternal grandfather (Benjamin L. Cohen) had taught me to sing Ein Kelohenu by the time I entered Temple Sinai (Brookline) Sunday school at the age of four. That involvement continued through NEFTY in high school. At Brandeis my very unofficial major was to take every course taught by Professor Nahum Glatzer of the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies department.
When Ian MacLeod, my late British father-in-law and Elder of the Church of Scotland, was asked how he felt about his only daughter marrying a practicing Jew, he answered, “Relieved!” When asked why, he responded, “I was afraid she would marry a Socialist.”
When did you first become interested in Judaism?
Once I found out that Jews have a different holiday from Christmas … The toys were at least as good.
You went to Brandeis and then law school at Columbia. What made you want to practice law?
Practicing law was not the objective. In fact, only a day and a half of my life since graduation has involved my doing work as a lawyer. Law school was supposed to increase the likelihood I would be a reasonably sophisticated consumer of legal advice in my eventual careers in government, politics, real estate, and management consulting.
Your practice entails negotiation, executive coaching, consulting, business school teaching, and training for business and nonprofit organizations. What led you to specialize in this field?
My early professional life involved constant negotiation – as a community organizer, political campaigner, the City of Boston’s Washington lobbyist, and a real estate developer/manager. Teaching and coaching others about negotiation is a logical outgrowth of those earlier careers.
So: At the end of a negotiation course I took at Harvard Law School, Professor Roger Fisher (author of Getting To Yes) named me to the Advisory Board of his program. I took that as a sign. When I founded The Negotiation Skills Company in 1991 we chose a simple mission statement: Advance the cause of civility. The interest-based approach to negotiation we have taught is the best tool people have to reach agreements in a civilized way.
What do you like most about the work you do?
Helping people become empowered for their professional and business lives is particularly rewarding. Working with people from about 100 countries since the mid-1990s, in business sectors ranging from health care to defense manufacturing, retail sales to telecommunications and many others has presented me a broad range of learning opportunities as well as friendships nearly everywhere I go. When my father, a naturally talented negotiator, wanted to understand the reason for my teaching negotiation skills he asked, “Don’t people realize that it’s fun?”
Teaching is sort of like successful stand-up comedy; it can yield instant gratification. But unlike comedy, it can yield long-term gratification as well. Getting thank you notes from grateful former students and readers of my books is especially rewarding.
You have been deeply involved in nonprofits and boards. You’re a trustee on the Essex County Community Foundation, and have served on Beverly Bootstraps, Environmental League of Massachusetts, were president of the Massachusetts chapter of Americans for Democratic Action, sat on the Metropolitan Area planning Council, and you’re also the chairman of the board of New England Hydropower Company (a commercial, not nonprofit venture). Why are you so active in nonprofits?
The nonprofits present opportunities to give back, to draw upon experience and skills to do a broad range of good things. Nonprofits attract impressive people as volunteers and leaders. I often look around the meeting rooms and am blown away by the talent and dedication of my colleagues. Developing and implementing strategies/programs with social and environmental objectives is the right thing to do.
Having been involved in nonprofits practically all of my life has given me the chance to apply lessons learned in previous experiences to each successive organization. It has also given me the right to claim the title of curmudgeon. But a creative curmudgeon …
You’ve also been very committed to Jewish causes – serving on boards of Brookline’s Temple Sinai, Hebrew College, Temple Ahavat Achim in Gloucester, the Jewish Federation of the North Shore and others. Why are you so passionate about Jewish communal life?
A simple answer is, that is what a Jew is supposed to do.
American Judaism is changing and evolving. A minority of American Jews affiliate with traditional Jewish organizations such as temples and other Jewish institutions. What’s the future of these institutions and what kind of new initiatives do you think are needed to strengthen Jewish continuity?
While my parents’ generation was traumatized by the Depression, World War II (including the Holocaust), and by relative social isolation from ‘mainstream’ America, much of my generation was actively engaged by Jewish community centers and summer camps, by genuinely visible Jewish residential and shopping neighborhoods, Jewish education, and a vibrant Jewish social life.
When my parents bought the Newton land for their new house in the later 1940s, the city’s dominant real estate company would not deal with Jews. By the time the house was built, a couple of years later, our neighborhood was overwhelmingly Jewish. Living in our part of Newton, my younger brothers thought non-Jews were a minority. While the ghettos Jews occupied initially were imposed on us, they reinforced and invigorated Jewish life. Today, the ghettos that held the Jewish community together are gone.
We need initiatives and institutions that attract involvement and underscore the rewards Judaism/Jewish life yield. The plethora of Jewish film festivals, tourism opportunities, education, and social events need to be accompanied by aggressive, imaginative promotion of religious involvement and practice. Activities that are Jewish because Jews did the art, composed the music, or wrote the books are a small step; underscoring the Jewish part of Jewish art, music, and books could yield longer term engagement.
What are the biggest challenges facing the Greater Boston Jewish community?
The biggest challenge facing our Jewish community is the same ‘biggest challenge’ facing every living thing on Earth: our changing climate. We must pay attention to the immediate issues that face us as individuals, Jews, Bostonians, Americans; however, whatever solutions we pursue for those basically personal objectives will mean nothing if the Earth descends into a death spiral. We cannot wait; as we recognize at the end of Yom Kippur, the gates are closing.
America has seen an uptick in anti-Semitism, and across Massachusetts and the North Shore more and more incidents are being reported. What’s the best way to combat anti-Semitism?
Just as anti-Semitism has many faces and manifestations, our approach must be multi-pronged. Pursuing the enactment and enforcement of effective laws and regulations can make a big difference. The American Civil Liberties Union’s support of public sector leadership and enforcement, underscoring the importance of the Constitution and the rule of law is crucial in this regard. Arming ourselves and friends with information can be helpful in those cases where folks who appear anti-Semitic are open to logical discussion. Children need to be raised to be open-minded, to have as broad a range of friends as possible. The success of Facing History and Ourselves and the education programs offered by the Anti-Defamation League are two excellent examples of civility education programs.
Unfortunately, most anti-Semites – and other bigots – do not arrive at their views logically. The work of the Southern Poverty Law Center working within the legal system is one effective response. Positive outreach that appeals to bigoted folks’ real interests, to their guts rather than their brains, is far more likely to succeed. Building alliances with people who are not necessarily like us is critical. Jewish efforts at tikkun olam (healing the world) can strengthen our collective reputation. For some non-Jews, the muscularity of Israel is a major factor.
When Hillel responded to the Roman centurion who demanded he explain Judaism while standing on one leg by saying, “That which is hateful to you do not do unto others. The rest is commentary,” he was teaching us a critical lesson that must inform everything we do.