A Titan of the Jewish World: Reflecting on My Father, a True Jointnik
Dr. Isaac Kohane's father dedicated his life to serving the Jewish people — and today, he carries that legacy forward.
By Dr. Isaac Kohane - Chair, Dept. of Biomedical Informatics at Harvard Medical School | May 19, 2023
A legendary JDC professional leader, Akiva Kohane was born and educated in Krakow, Poland. He escaped the German invasion of Poland in 1939 and joined JDC in 1944, working in Tehran to run a program sending relief packages to European Jews who’d fled the Nazis and sought refuge in Asiatic Russia. Later, he was named JDC’s deputy director for Germany, helping Jewish refugees in Displaced Persons (DP) camps rebuild their lives. He transferred to JDC’s Geneva headquarters in 1955, where his son Isaac was born, and by 1959, he was supervising the operation of loan societies in 18 countries. He went on to serve as JDC’s representative in Poland — where he helped revitalize the Polish Jewish community to great acclaim — and Austria and retired from the organization in 1990.
Recently reacquainted with JDC, we’re honored to feature his son Isaac’s reflection on his father’s inspirational legacy and his family’s lasting connection to JDC and its mission.
JDC is many things, but the piece of the mission that resonates the most with me is the one my father, Akiva Kohane, was involved with going back to the 1940s and certainly through my birth in Geneva, Switzerland, and beyond.
He knew well that wherever Jews might find themselves across the world, the time may come when they’ll need help. He understood, too, that what sets JDC apart is that it develops relationships of ongoing support with Jewish communities, meeting them where they live.
It’s not glamorous, but it’s critically important — building community centers, supporting programs on the ground — and it means that when things get ugly, all the contacts are there. JDC knows the lay of the land, and they can move in to make a meaningful impact. You don’t have to look any further than the current situation in Ukraine to see how essential that ongoing dialogue and infrastructure is during times of crisis.
I lead the department of biomedical informatics at Harvard Medical School, but all throughout my career, I’ve been wondering when I’d be able to contribute to the vital project of helping the Jewish people in the way that my father devoted his whole life to. I’ve done what I can, to be sure, but he did his part in the most substantive ways.
And then sometimes, you get a reminder. I was fortunate to recently receive a lifetime achievement award with a significant cash prize, and as I wondered where I’d donate the funds, I came back to JDC. It had been a constant in my family’s life through the generations. To my great pleasure, I was immediately welcomed back to the family.
Growing up, I met some of the real movers and shakers of JDC, people like Ralph Goldman and Samuel Haber and Charles Jordan. These weren’t just titans of the Jewish world — they were guests at our home, my parents’ dear friends who were all united around JDC’s singular mission. Each Friday night, I still drink wine from a kiddush cup Jordan gave me as a newborn. The inscription reads: “Isaac Samuel Kohane from his godfather, Charles Jordan, 5th July, 1960” — he had given it to me on the occasion of my brit milah.
As a child, I remember that my father would leave for a week each month, traveling to Poland to meet with the Jewish community. He’d visit the Jewish theater and repair cemeteries, and as the Iron Curtain fell, he liaised with ministers of the emerging independent Polish government. I remember the stories he’d tell and that feeling of being so impressed by JDC — how they were committed to going just up to that certain line, but never crossing it, so that when the needs arose, they had the flexibility, trust, and respect to meet the moment and assist Jews in crisis.
It felt like country-level social work to me — setting up the supports that were needed and the emergency exits you hope you’ll never have to use.
My father was in love with the Jewish people — every aspect of this great collective — and that only grew and deepened throughout his life. For him, and for JDC, it was a matter of historical memory — not clickbait or some theoretical concern, but something they’d known for decades. They’d watched as the whole world as they knew it collapsed, and it sparked something in them.
Looking at the ways in which the communities he served have stepped up to help Ukraine’s Jews over the course of this crisis, I think my father would be delighted. He’d be beside himself with joy, and I can imagine him saying to me, “You see? You see why we did all that?” He’d feel validated that all his hard work bringing Jewish lives and communities in Eastern Europe back from the ashes was bearing fruit, even as he’d be horrified and surprised by the desperate circumstances that necessitated this response.
My mother would have found it deeply meaningful, too. She lived into her nineties, and the mission of JDC was just as important to her as it was to my father. Born in rural Poland, she was one of the millions of deportees to the Soviet Union who came back to the country after the war.
She told me those days represented her first time sleeping on a bed in six years. Another miracle soon followed — a job at JDC, working alongside her sister as some of the thousand or so people my father supervised in his role at the Joint. Hearing directly from my parents what it was like to be a refugee and take care of others in the same situation at the same time has always been important to me.
My father was in love with the Jewish people –– every aspect of this great collective –– that only grew and deepened throughout his life.
Lately, I’ve found myself reflecting on what makes JDC so special: What’s the cultural DNA that has kept this organization laser-focused on its mission all these years? It’s hard to fathom. In my life, I’ve been part of very big organizations with long histories, but their mission has changed over time. But with JDC, I’m seeing the same spirit animate the leadership and the field staff as I did 40 years ago.
Maybe it’s G-d’s work, maybe it’s something else — but no matter how you look at it, it’s something to be proud of. Somehow, today’s JDC has managed to follow in the footsteps of my father and his contemporaries. I’m so glad I’ve reconnected with this wonderful organization, and I’m going to continue to look for ways to help it develop the programs and infrastructure on the ground that help protect our people.
What the JDC is doing is central to the Jewish people’s mission: We’re supposed to help the world. That’s very clearly defined in the Torah and Talmud — first, you take care of your family, if your family’s starving, and then, you move on to the wider community and beyond.
That’s what we’ve learned, that we must work as individuals and families to build the world we wish to live in. JDC is doing it, and I hope I can continue to be part of that story.
Isaac Kohane, MD, PhD, is chair of the Department of Biomedical Informatics at Harvard Medical School and serves as its Marian V. Nelson Professor of Biomedical Informatics.