Sheri Cohen

My Story...

I was born in Winnipeg on December 19, 1956, and I am the youngest of three siblings, after my brothers Charles and Mark. My paternal grandparents came from Russia and settled in Winnipeg's north end; they then moved to Calgary. My maternal grandmother was born in Stockholm, Sask.; she then moved to Thunder Bay before putting down roots in Winnipeg.

My parents, Samuel Nathan Cohen and Leatrice Joy Cohen, were both born in Winnipeg and were thoroughly involved in the Jewish and non-Jewish community through their support of new initiatives and their philanthropic donations. My mother held many different volunteer positions within the Jewish community, such as at ORT, Hadassah and the St. Boniface Research Foundation, among others.

I have lived in Toronto since 1982, and my life's work is in community activism, social work and social justice philanthropy. In 1998, I founded the first employment centre for youth and adults with learning disabilities in Ontario, and I have been involved in the disabilities movement for more than 25 years.

After some time away, I came back to Judaism in 2002 through Jewish Renewal, and I began a process to deepen my understanding of how to stand again at Sinai as a white Jewish woman who comes from class privilege. I wanted to understand how to engage with my lived experience, compassion and presence, speaking to Tikkun Olam and tzedakah not through the model of charity but through a way of equity.

I began a process of meeting with various organizations both in and outside of Canada that offered programs to support someone like myself looking for a way into dialogue and gifting differently.  I approached this process with many questions: What does it mean to heal the world when there is so much suffering? How much is enough to gift when one lives with an abundance? How do we speak to money, as it is often a taboo subject? Where do I find like-minded individuals to deepen our conversations together? Over the last 20 years, I have been fortunate to find people to speak to and deepen my own understanding.

There are three people who were instrumental in this part of my journey. Billee Laskin, who provides spiritual direction and is my root teacher, offered me a new way into unpacking privilege and class, Tikkun Olam and tzedakah through deepening our conversations together. I would bring in my questions and learned to sit, listening deeply to the inner wisdom and was offered different practices in Judaism and Buddhism.  I learned to read Hebrew through a transliteration process to deeply embody and listen to the stories and find new meaning.

Rabbi Alan Green, who I met at a Jewish Renewal retreat and connected with, offered me a place of refuge at Shaarey Zedek Synagogue to come and meet, learn and daven; when I travelled back to Winnipeg, I always had Shaarey Zedek to call home.

Rabbi Miriam Margles, my Rabbi in Toronto, has always welcomed conversations on Jewish responsibility, the ability to respond with an open heart and taking an active part in understanding Torah and all the ways in which I engaged in Judaism while continuing to lean into new teachings that she offered individually and through our community.  

Through the last 20 years, I have sat with other rabbis and teachers who offered ways of understanding the meaning of the seven attributes within Judaism in a practice called Counting the Omer : Chesed: loving-kindness; Gevurah: justice and discipline;  Tiferet: compassion and harmony; Metzacht: endurance and fortitude; Hod: humility; Yesod: bonding and foundation;  Malchut: nobility, sovereignty, and leadership. This is an ongoing practice; a way of life, living into it all.

I have set up this endowment through the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba to honour three family members of who I am deeply proud of: my cousins, John Diamond, Maureen Diamond (Marquess) and John's wife, Heather Diamond. Throughout the years, they have been role models for me and continually show their commitment to engaging the community, their family and dedicating themselves and their resources to support new endeavours.

I feel it is important to honour the people that we truly love in our lives, and the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba offers me the opportunity to do that. I feel deeply grateful that I have gifted this fund in the place where I grew up.

As Rabbi Hillel said:  

"If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And being for myself, what am 'I'? And if not now, when?"

And Reverend Angel Kyodo Williams:

"Love and justice are not two. Without inner change, there can be no outer change; without collective change, no change matters."