Cohan will take the helm of JVNA, a national nonprofit organization, beginning July 16.
“The Jewish Vegetarians of North America have been around for about 30 years, but have never had a professional executive director,” Cohan said, adding that the time is now right for the organization to expand its reach because of a growing interest in food and environmental issues.
Cohan is the author of the Chronicle blog “The Beet-Eating Heeb,” where he “lives at the intersection of Judaism and vegetarianism, very close to veganism.”
Cohan will work to grow the JVNA through board development, strategic planning and program measurement.
JVNA was founded in 1975 following a World Vegetarian Conference held at the University of Maine in Orono. The group’s mission is to advocate for Jewish vegetarianism based on compassion for animals, concern for the environment, feeding the hungry and preserving health. JVNA emphasizes the connections between vegetarian and Jewish values, utilizing material from the Torah and Talmud, modern responsa and Jewish legal codes.
From its start JVNA has been affiliated with the International Jewish Vegetarian Society, which is centered in London and has published a quarterly Jewish Vegetarian magazine since 1965.
Over the years, JVNA activists started local chapters and carried out Jewish vegetarian activities in several parts of the United States. In addition to creating newsletters and maintaining a website (JewishVeg.com), the JVNA has also produced the one-hour documentary, “A Sacred Duty: Applying Jewish Values to Help Heal the World,” and has distributed over 35,000 complimentary copies of the film.
While the organization is based in New York, Cohan plans to remain in Pittsburgh, commuting when needed.
Cohan, who has been a vegetarian for about five years, was inspired to adopt a plant-based diet by Genesis 1:29, in which God says to Adam: “Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree that has seed-yielding fruit — to you it shall be for food.”
“Vegetarianism and veganism are the highest forms of kashrut,” Cohan said. “The Torah clearly expresses the vegetarian ideal. My wife Kathryn and I both came to it through the Torah.”
Cohan said the JVNA will work on outreach to Jews who are not “finding meaning in their Judaism.”
“I think the number one reason why membership is down in Reform, Conservative, and some Orthodox congregations is because people are struggling to find meaning in their everyday lives through Judaism,” he said. “With vegetarianism, people are finding meaning three times a day, at meal times.
“The amazing thing is, when you see [vegetarianism] is the Torah ideal, you see how it all falls into place,” he continued. “It’s better for the environment, it’s better for animals and it’s better for your physical health. You can see God’s wisdom.”
Cohan comes to the JVNA with his experience working at the Federation, as well as with a master’s of public management from Carnegie Mellon University.
“Jeff seemed like the right person to get us moving,” said JVNA President Richard Schwartz. “We want to get the message out that vegetarianism is consistent with Jewish teachings. We feel we have a very important message on one of the most important decisions of the day. Most people are unaware of the environmental impact of a meat-centered diet. Jews are supposed to be a light unto the nations. We need to do as much as possible to get the message out.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)