Saul Cohen, Community Member and a Hillel Yeshiva Alumnus, Vies for Brooklyn Judgeship
When Saul Cohen decided to throw his hat into the ring as an independent Democratic judge for the State of New York last December, he did not anticipate just how challenging and time-consuming this endeavor would be. Personable, with a keen sense of humor, Cohen never shied away from taking on challenges. On the contrary, he finds challenges to be invigorating. Besides, he enjoys interacting with people and communicating his thoughts on subjects important to him. The pursuit of justice is one such topic, which not only touches his heart, but is something he has dedicated his life to.
It’s Friday morning, and Saul Cohen is in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza subway station handing out election flyers and engaging passers-by. The Democratic primaries are set for Thursday, September 13th and Cohen is out to secure as many votes as possible. As New York is a “true blue” state, most Brooklyn residents are either registered Democrats or lean to the left ideologically. (Republicans have no hope of getting elected or nominated in New York State.) Only registered Democrats are eligible to vote in this primary, and the deadline to register to vote is August 19th. Cohen encourages passers-by to do their civic duty and register. Many are open to the suggestion. “The people I’m meeting are polite, friendly, and interested in getting to know me and in my views on many issues. They appreciate the role the judiciary plays in their lives and in that of their communities,” Cohen says.
Cohen is a Torah-observant Jew and is new on the block. Should he win the election, he will join the ranks of a growing number of Orthodox Jewish judges, some of whom reached the top echelons of the State’s justice system. These include such prominent figures as Justice David Friedman, Associate Justice of the NY Appellate Division of the Supreme Court, the late Justice Herbert Kramer of the New York State Supreme Court, Judge Noach Dear, New York Supreme Court justice, and Judge Rachel Freier, elected last year to Civil Court, making her the first female Hasidic elected official in the country. These orthodox judges are renowned for their integrity, scholarship, and fairness. Cohen aspires to follow in their footsteps. “A good judge is one who embodies tzedek, mishpat, and rachamim, concepts that I adhere to, and which have guided me throughout my professional career and in my personal life,” Cohen says.
Cohen may be a new player in the game, but believes he has what it takes to win and do the job. As a civil court attorney for over a decade, the 37-year-old father of three established his reputation many times over for integrity, honesty, and getting results. A relentless pursuer of justice, Cohen not only fought against foreclosures and for tenants’ rights, but often worked pro bono for those in need of his services. Cohen shares a wealth of stories of cases that touched him personally, especially regarding helping the underprivileged. There was, for instance, the employee who won a judgment against his company for injuries incurred on the job, but which the company refused to honor. Even though the man could not afford to pay, Cohen Law Firm LLP, the firm that Cohen runs together with his brother Raymond, took on the challenge. They procured for the injured worker the full amount of the judgment – about $140,000 – that the company had squirreled away in a hidden bank account. “He was ever so grateful for what we did for him. With this compensation, he bought his mother a small property in Virginia.”
Then there are the more unusual cases, such as the elderly lady that Cohen helped gain ownership of a property she occupied for close to forty years, whose owner was missing-in-action. Cohen argued the Law of Adverse Possession, a legal doctrine that allows for the transfer of ownership of a property to inhabitants under certain conditions. “In this case, the judgment was justified given that no heirs came forward and the lady was paying the mortgage and taking care of the property for over twenty years.”
There are currently more than 1,200 judges appointed or elected in New York State, with over 150 federal court judges presently sitting on the bench. Cohen is seeking a judgeship in the Civil Court, which has state-wide jurisdiction over recovery of money and landlord-tenant matters. To qualify for the position, judges must have been attorneys for a minimum of ten years before taking office. Additionally, they must show the requisite demeanor and judicial temperament – patience, industriousness, and lack of bias – and be knowledgeable of the law beyond their specific area of expertise. This is required because judges often end up presiding over courts to which they were not initially elected or assigned. For example, Cohen, who is running for the position as a Civil Court judge, may end up adjudicating in family court as part of his ten-year mandate.
Cohen believes he is ready for this and all possibilities. Even though Cohen’s expertise lies in civil law – his work in commercial landlord-tenant law was published in prominent legal publications – he has kept up to date on what’s happening outside his field. More importantly, Cohen believes that his years of experience litigating cases in the courtroom, and in pursuing policies “le’Shem Shamayim” have well-prepared him for this new challenge. Torah-observant Jews, he feels, bring a unique perspective to the bench. “Being fearful of Hashem and always following in the Torah’s ways creates judges with a whole other level of awareness,” Cohen says.
Cohen’s Roots in the Syrian Community
Those who know Saul Cohen well are not surprised by his foray into the judicial sphere. An active member of the Syrian Jewish community, Cohen grew up in Oakhurst, N.J, where he attended Hillel Yeshiva. There he became a member of the National Honor Society. Cohen’s dream was to pursue law. He studied at Rutgers University, where he earned a Bachelor of Science Degree majoring in Administration of Justice. He graduated from Seton Hall University Law School.
Cohen is married to Jennifer Stavrach Cohen, who backs her husband’s candidacycompletely, and has assisted him throughout his campaign. The Cohens live in Flatbush, where their three children attend Magen David Yeshiva. They attend Congregation Bnei Shelomo. Cohen has a close personal relationship with Rabbi Eliezer Zeytouneh, the rabbi of the congregation. Rabbi Zeytouneh is also the principal of Yeshivat Or Hatorah and the dean of Peninim Sephardic Seminary. Cohen considers Rabbi Zeytouneh his spiritual mentor. The family is also actively involved in public service. On many occasions Cohen represented the synagogue pro bono by reviewing and revising the shul’s leases. Cohen is active in the Center for Return, a Jewish outreach organization whose director is Rabbi Avrohom Kahn. Cohen was publicly honored for his efforts on behalf of the Center for Return about six years ago.
In his bid for judgeship, Saul Cohen is focused on reaching out to as many potential voters as possible. He feels fortunate for the backing and support of his family and feels privileged to pursue a profession that has brought him personal joy and satisfaction, as well as the opportunity to benefit others. “I thank Hashem for the honor of being a lawyer, as well as my parents Eli and Barbara Cohen for encouraging my brother Raymond and I to follow in this path. Raymond Cohen, an excellent attorney in his own right, taught me the ins and outs of the profession, especially the importance of being diligent and how to be detail-oriented. After all, when it comes to the law, it’s the details that make all the difference.” Cohen also acknowledges his in-laws, Elliot Stavrach and Ilene Stavrach whose support and encouragement from the get-go have kept him going.
Getting Out the Vote
Many community members are cheering Cohen on, and asking how to actively lend their support, as are many frum Ashkenazi Jews living in Flatbush and Boro Park. “Register as Democrats,” Cohen tells them, “then show up on September 13th and cast your vote.”
Registering couldn’t be easier. Qualified voters can register online at ny.gov/vote. They can also call 1-800-for-vote to request a voter registration form. Joining the Democratic Party enables voters to support other candidates on the ballot, such as Senator Simcha Felder, who faces a formidable challenger this year, and Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is running for re-election. And no, a vote for Saul Cohen is not a vote against Gina Levy, another judicial candidate on the ballot. Levy, the first Syrian Jewish woman to run for Civil Court judge, is running for District Seat, while Cohen is running county-wide throughout all of Brooklyn.
With over a month to go, Saul Cohen is accelerating his pace, and giving it his all. But it’s the active support of religious Jews who want to see more frum judges and politicians running for office who will help to push him over the top.