2017-06-07 / Voice at the Shore

Jewish leader, lawyer and activist James Cooper, z”l, embodied tikkun olam

By ELLEN WEISMAN STRENGER
Voice shore editor


JAMES COOPER JAMES COOPER An inspiration. A man who spent a lifetime dedicated to social justice and Jewishinspired values. A true leader.

That is how Jewish community leaders described James Cooper, a prominent local attorney and community leader who recently passed away at the age of 87. Indeed, a great many leaders both inside and outside the Jewish community were inspired by Cooper’s example.

James Cooper, a former and fondly-remembered Jewish Federation president, dedicated his life to social justice and tikkum olam.

“His lifelong quest for justice and equality for all members of our society embodied and furthered the beliefs of Dr. Martin Luther King,” said Steven Scherzer, past president of the Jewish Federation and a lawyer with the law firm Cooper founded in 1957, now called Cooper Levenson.

In 1966, Cooper made what some saw as a bold and controversial decision to serve as a volunteer with President John F. Kennedy’s Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in Mississippi.

“He volunteered his legal abilities for a considerable period of time in Mississippi during the volatile times of the sixties. That’s the kind of person he was,” said Lloyd Levenson, CEO of Cooper Levenson.

In a letter Cooper wrote to his law partner of that time, Cooper said that the racial discrimination he saw in Mississippi was worse than the media had described or anyone could imagine, said Levenson, whose firm has saved the letter. Blacks were excluded from jury panels and justices got paid for convictions but not acquittals. Many white people were violently opposed to changing the status quo, and Cooper said he and other lawyers helping the black population were under threat.

“I’m really pleased that I’ve come here. It is so obviously worthwhile,” wrote Cooper.

Throughout his life, Cooper continued his work helping the African American community and received many awards for it, including a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007 from the Council of Black Faculty and Staff at Stockton University.

Steven Perskie, a former New Jersey legislator, retired judge, and lawyer, credits Cooper with helping him get elected to public office in 1971. Cooper’s efforts and influence also helped to pass the amendment to allow casino gambling in Atlantic City, which Perskie sponsored in 1976. “Jim Cooper was one of the most important people in my political career,” he noted, adding: “He was just a terrific person.”

Perskie and Cooper also worked together to raise money for Israel immediately after the Yom Kippur War broke out in 1973. “I helped him with that but he was the driving force,” said Perskie.

Although Cooper had little other involvement in Jewish community leadership at that time, “He was proudly and publicly

Jewish, and made no secret of that, and was a consistent contributor to Federation,” noted Perskie.

Cooper held many leadership positions in legal and community organizations—including Chairman of the Atlantic Cape Community College Foundation and founder and a chairman of the local chapter of the National Conference for Community and Justice. He also played a major role in the redevelopment of Historic Gardiner’s Basin. Yet he never got heavily involved in the Jewish Federation until his help was asked for in the late 1980s.

“We needed leadership and Jimmy stepped in and filled the void,” said Leo Schoffer, a former federation president and current board member. Despite Cooper’s limited past history with Federation, he was asked to become president. “I had the pleasure of being his vice president and campaign chair,” Schoffer added.

Penny Soble, a long time Federation volunteer and donor, recalled how he grew into his Jewish involvement. “He became very active!” said Soble, who became friends with Cooper and his late wife, Lorraine. She remembered him as “interesting, clever, nice and hardworking,” with a good sense of humor. He was someone “to be admired” for his advocacy of civil rights, even when others opposed him, she said.

Schoffer vividly recalled going with the Coopers on a 1988 Federation mission to Russia that also went to the Vilna Ghetto (in Lithuania) and Israel. Social action was an important component of the trip. “It was the end of the Refusenik period” in Russia, in which Jews were denied permission to leave Russia, said Schoffer. “We got names and addresses and went to see Refuseniks in the middle of the night. We brought them siddurs and books.”

Cooper’s social activism and leadership, both inside and outside of the Jewish community, offered a compelling role model for younger professionals whose lives he touched, said Barry Cohen, who was hired out of law school by Cooper and also knew him through their service to the Jewish Federation. “I was deeply impressed with his decision to become president,” he noted.

“He fostered Federation Young Leadership, Jewish Community Relations [Council], and the cause of Soviet Jewry, which at the time was reaching a boiling point,” he added. “I am convinced that his decision to take a leadership role in the Federation reflected his own recognition that his Jewish heritage was the fuel which fired his engagement in the social justice battles he fought for his entire life.”

Cooper continued to find ways to make a difference even in his later years, noted Levenson. At age 82, he started a charity called “Let Us Eat Please.” Inspired by his daughter’s experiences as a teacher, the charity subsidized meals for needy students when school was not in session.

Cooper’s wife, Lorraine, and son, Kevin, predeceased him. According to the Atlantic City Press, he is survived by his daughter, Cynthia, and her partner, Dr. Gwen Engelhard; his fiancee, Arlene Halpern; and seven nephews and a niece. 

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