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Jacob Xenab Cohen, papers

Identifier: P-661

Scope and Content Note

The Papers of Jacob Xenab Cohen reflect his varied activities as an engineer and rabbi. Although the collection represents only a small portion of Rabbi Cohen's extant papers, there is a great deal of important material contained for the study of both American Jewish activism, and Jewish life in South America.

The collection is valuable to researchers interested in the history of the American Jewish Congress and its activities, in employment discrimination against American Jews, in anti-Semitism, in Jewish anti-Nazi activism, in liberal Jewish theology and in the Jewish communities of Brazil, Peru and Mexico, as well as the rest of Latin America.

The collection contains correspondence, memoranda, reports, articles, clippings, notes, speeches and ephemera. The vast majority of the items are in English, with some notations in Hebrew, Spanish and Portuguese. Also included within the collection are condolences received by Sadie Cohen upon the death of her husband, and documentation on various institutions and programs endowed by her in his memory.

In compiling this Inventory, Rob Stephenson described the collection at the item level. Rob identified some seventeen separate folders (listed as "Items" in the Inventory) that ranged from loose-leaf binders, to folders, to small portfolios of handwritten notes taken by Rabbi Cohen on his travels. The researcher should note that items A and B, as referenced on the attached inventory, were loose-leaf binders which the Society's professional staff decided to disassemble in order to better preserve the items contained within them. Thus, while Rob's Inventory preserves the original order in which he found the collection, the researcher will find that the individual correspondence and materials listed under "Item A" and "Item B" have been transferred to file folders, and have been reorganized in a more sensible fashion. Each folder has been marked with an A or a B (or both, in some cases), to help the researcher correlate the item on the Inventory with the folders found in Box 1 of the collection.


  • undated, 1913-1978


Language of Materials

The collection is in English, Hebrew, Portuguese, and Spanish.

Access Restrictions

The collection is open to all researchers, except items that may be restricted due to their fragility, or privacy.

Use Restrictions

No permission is required to quote, reproduce or otherwise publish manuscript materials found in this collection, as long as the usage is scholarly, educational, and non-commercial. For inquiries about other usage, please contact the Director of Collections and Engagement at

For reference questions, please email:

Biographical Note

Jacob Xenab Cohen (1889-1955)

Jacob Cohen was born in New York City to Lithuanian Jewish parents on August 15, 1889. As the eldest son of immigrant parents, young Jacob carried his parents' expectations for his success, as well as the responsibility of caring for numerous younger siblings after school. A quiet and dynamic young man, Jacob Cohen graduated from the Hebrew Technical Institute at the age of 17, and was immediately hired as a draftsman by a Brooklyn manufacturing company. In late 1906, the engineering firm of Herring and Fuller hired him, where by 1915 he had established his reputation as a sanitary engineer. Attending night school at Cooper Union, he achieved his B.S.C.E. in 1911, and was hired to teach night classes there in 1913. It was during this period that he adopted the middle name "Xenab" to distinguish himself from the other Jacob Cohens then living in New York.

In 1915, the newly-married "J. X." Cohen was hired by the City of Syracuse, New York, to design a Sewage Disposal Works. This work, carried out under the auspices of the Syracuse Intercepting Sewer Board, was completed in 1925. Long dedicated to Jewish liberalism and impressed by the example of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, Cohen had been a founder of the Bronx Free Synagogue in 1914 and served as its first President. Thus, it was no surprise that, at the urging of friends, Cohen entered the Jewish Institute of Religion in 1925 to study for the rabbinate under Stephen Wise. By 1929, he had achieved both the rabbinical and M.H.L. degrees, and was immediately hired as Associate Rabbi of the Free Synagogue--a post he held for more than eleven years.

Cohen was also active with Stephen Wise in the American Jewish Congress, serving both on its Governing Council and as Chair of its National Committee on Economic Problems. From the latter post, he directed studies of employment discrimination of which the best known are "Jews, Jobs and Discrimination" (1937), "Helping to End Economic Discrimination" (1937), and "Toward Fair Play for Jewish Workers" (1938). Altogether, Cohen authored some 60 reports on employment discrimination against Jews and African Americans between 1930 and 1944. He was an outspoken advocate for FDR's Fair Employment Practices Commission. In 1940, he traveled to South America on behalf of the American Jewish Congress to survey the economic and political condition of Jewish communities throughout Latin America. The trip culminated in a book,"Jewish Life in South America," for which Stephen Wise penned a foreword.

J. X. demonstrated strong feelings for the welfare of others over the course of his career. In Syracuse, he was a member of the Board of Directors (later President) of the Jewish Communal Home and Secretary of the local Federation of Jewish Charities. He was subsequently appointed Executive Director of the Jewish Home for Aged. While at the Jewish Institute of Religion, he used these experiences in his masters thesis, titled "Ancient and Modern Care of the Aged--A Study of Paupers, Poorhouses and Pensions." As a rabbi, he continued his work for the less fortunate by chairing the Committee on the Jewish Chaplaincy of the New York Board of Rabbis and extending its work to hospitals, prison facilities and other institutions of social welfare.

acob X. Cohen's busy and dynamic career came to an abrupt end in 1950, when he was struck by a degenerative neurological illness which greatly depleted his physical capabilities. The last five years of his life were spent in his home, as a bedridden invalid, although he retained his mental faculties to the end. Hi died on April 24, 1955.


Cohen, Sadie Alta F. "Engineer of the Soul: A Biography of Rabbi J. X. Cohen (1889-1955)" (New York: Bloch Publishing Company, 1961). S. v., "Cohen, Jacob Xenab," "Universal Jewish Encyclopedia," vol. 3 (New York, 1941), p. 247.


Born in Brooklyn, New York to Barnet Cohen and his wife Ida Weber Cohen, both originally from Meretz (Merkine), Lithuania
Attended Hebrew Technical Institute; established lasting friendship with Principal Dr. Edgar Starr Barney
May 1906
Hired by Tuttle & Bailey Manufacturing Company (first job)
Employed by Herring and Fuller, an engineering firm
Attended Sundays meetings at the Hudson Theatre to hear Rabbi Stephen S. Wise
Attended Cooper Union at night
Graduated from Cooper Union with a B.S.C.E. degree; valedictorian of his class
Met Sadie Alta Friedberg, a distant cousin
Younger brother Henry dies of diphtheria
Taught mechanical drawing at Cooper Union; completed ms. textbook on this subject
Married Sadie Alta Friedberg
Founded the Free Synagogue of the Bronx with Joseph M. Levine
Hired by City of Syracuse, New York to design sewage disposal works
April 1916
Daughter Pauline born
Enlisted in the Army Engineering Corps; assigned to Camp Knox, Kentucky
Returned to Syracuse
Appointed Executive Director of the Jewish Home for Aged of Central New York in Syracuse
Sewer work in Syracuse completed; entered Jewish Institute of Religion
Purchased land to construct his summer home at Mohegan Lake, near Peekskill
Graduated Jewish Institute of Religion
Hired as Associate Rabbi by the Free Synagogue and as Bursar of the Jewish Institute of Religion
Executive Secretary of the Free Synagogue
Appointed Chair of the Committee on Economic Problems of the American Jewish Congress
Appointed Chair of the Peekskill Board of Water Commissioners
Traveled to England, France, Germany and Russia with the Sherwood Eddy Seminar
Traveled to Mexico with a group led by Dr. Hubert Herring
President of the New York Board of Rabbis
Traveled to South America with the Committee on Cultural Relations with Latin America as an official representative of the World Jewish Congress
Became Chair of the Chaplaincy Committee of the New York Board of Rabbis
Chaplaincy Committee and Psychiatric Department of Mount Sinai Hospital inaugurate a Chaplaincy Institute for "scientific" training of Jewish chaplains
Took Leave of Absence from the Free Synagogue and the American Jewish Congress; later relinquishes all official duties
April 1955
Died of a degenerative neurological disorder


1.5 Linear Feet (3 manuscript boxes)


Consists of correspondence, articles, speeches, travel notes, ephemera and other documents pertaining to the career of a civil-engineer Jacob Xenab Cohen, who retired from that profession in 1924 to become a practicing rabbi. Includes materials from Cohen's campaigns against employment discrimination and Nazi persecution of Jews in Europe from 1932 to 1945.

Acquisition Information

Donated by Sadie Alta Friedberg Cohen, widow of J. X. Cohen, in 1978.

Related Material

American Jewish Historical Society:

Papers of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise

Papers of the American Jewish Congress

Edward Klein Memorial Library, Stephen Wise Free Synagogue:

Papers of Rabbi Jacob X. Cohen

Papers of Stephen S. Wise

American Jewish Archives:

Papers of Rabbi Jacob X. Cohen

Guide to the Papers of Jacob Xenab Cohen (1889-1955), undated, 1913-1978   *P-661
Processed by Robert B. Stephenson, Holly Snyder (November 1994) and Marvin Rusinek (October 2006)
© 2009
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Description is in English.

Revision Statements

  • October 2020: EHyman: post-ASpace migration cleanup.

Repository Details

Part of the American Jewish Historical Society Repository

15 West 16th Street
New York NY 10011 United States