Those are the words of Ben Cohen, taken from his foreword to Builders and Dreamers: Habonim Labor Zionist Youth in North America. He and his teenage friends had traveled from Chicago to Buffalo in the fall of 1935 to participate in the founding convention of Habonim. There he became a boneh, a builder with a dream, and that term summarizes a full life as an inspired builder, of everything from several Labor Zionist organizations to huge housing projects and from a remarkable family to myriad friendships in both America and Israel. On the eve of Rosh Hashanah Ben passed away at the age of 93, bequeathing to all of us an incomparable example of the unique combination of idealism and pragmatism — of building and dreaming — that defines Labor Zionism.
Benjamin Cohen, known to everyone as Benny and then Ben, was born in 1919 to a Labor Zionist family in Chicago. He is remembered to this day for his fine tenor voice, his dramatic talent, and his work on a book of Hebrew and Yiddish songs. In 1937 he began to study agronomy at the University of Illinois, where the chaverim had a cooperative residence known as the Kupah. His next stop was the hachsharah training farm in New Jersey. In 1949 he and his young family went on Aliyah to Herzliah, where he helped build and manage Israel’s first automated concrete-block factory.
Ben returned to the United States in 1960, where he established his reputation as a master builder on two disparate fronts, professional and volunteer. Without prior training he rose to the position of senior vice president of the Starrett Housing Corporation, one of New York’s major builders, and as manager of the construction of the 6000-unit middle-income housing development in Brooklyn known as Starrett City. After retiring in 1990 he served as a consultant as well as an arbitrator.
The other field in which Ben was a preeminent builder was Labor Zionism, as a founder of the American Habonim Association in the 1960s and of the merged Labor Zionist Alliance in the 1970s; as a high officer of the latter and its successor, Ameinu, into the 2000s; and as a pillar of the Habonim Dror Foundation established in the 1990s. Contributions to HDF in Ben’s memory will be appreciated by the family.
I was associated with Ben in all of those communal endeavors and more for a half-century. He was my indispensable partner, providing sound fiscal, organizational, and political counsel and undertaking tasks no one else could have handled. And he matched his prolific activity with his financial generosity.
In the 1980s Ben held the highest position ever achieved by an American Labor Zionist as president of the American Zionist Federation (now Movement), where he is still remembered for the same qualities of personal warmth, organizational smarts, programmatic innovation, and consensus building that he always demonstrated in our own movement. As an extension of his AZF role he served on the World Zionist Executive and the Jewish Agency Board of Governors.
Back at the hachsharah farm in New Jersey in the 1940s Ben met and married Harriet Zichlinsky from Brooklyn, to whom he was married for 58 years until her untimely passing in 2002. Harriet and Ben shared personal and ideological commitments combined with down-to-earth wisdom. Again our personal lives overlapped with visits to their home in Manhattan and Elaine’s and mine in Long Island and then Maryland. I always enjoyed their company and even knew not to telephone during “Jeopardy.” Their family included three children and spouses and five grandchildren, with two generations of Habonim leaders and several current olim.
Of the many names associated with the life of Ben Cohen, at least two should be mentioned: his brother, Julius, who served the Histadrut Campaign for many years: and his lifetime closest friend, Yechiel Sasson, who as Harry Sosewitz went on that same trip to Buffalo in 1935 and served as a shaliach from Kfar Blum in the 1950s when the Workshop was founded.
Tributes like this often conclude with a plea that we follow in the footsteps of the deceased. In Ben Cohen’s case the footsteps lead to entire structures. Let us honor his memory by continuing to build and to dream the way he inspired us to do.
Donations to honor Ben Cohen’s memory can be made to Ameinu by clicking here.