2018-08-15 / Local News

Working to help troubled youth with opportunity…and cookies

MEET TODD PISANI…
By JAYNE JACOVA FELD Voice staff

FAMILY: Partner Marla Cohen; Sons Miles, 28, and Matthew, 22; Step-daughters Gabi, 20, and Frannie, 12

AGE: 50

SYNAGOGUE: Temple Har Zion

FAVORITE JAM BAND: The Grateful Dead

FAVORITE FOOD TO BAKE FOR AN EVENT: Gluten-free cookies

FAVORITE POETRY: Haiku

In the heart of one of America’s poorest and most violent cities, Todd Pisani goes to work each day feeling optimistic for the future of Camden’s residents.

The coordinator of a community center helping the city’s troubled youths rebuild their lives, Pisani focuses much of his energy these days on grassroots efforts underway to bring about post-traumatic healing and to forge entrepreneurial opportunities in Camden neighborhoods outside of the already developed “Eds and Meds” corridor that houses Cooper University Medical Center and area colleges.

Case in point: On the same day he set up a first-time farm stand being run by teens who have had brushes with the juvenile justice system, he would later meet with a group of activists in the process of creating neighborhood-based businesses meant to provide needed services, training grounds and employment as a viable alternative to the streets. Among them, a friend is in the throes of creating DARE Academy. The D stands for “Dance” with no reference to drugs.

“There really is a renaissance in Camden and we’re creating this as we go along,” said Pisani, regional coordinator of the Rutgers Transitional Education and Employment Management Gateway program that provides education, employment and wraparound mental and physical health services to youth that is housed at the Isabel Miller Community Center in the city’s Centerville neighborhood. “It’s happening anyway and I’m here to help professionalize them and find funding opportunities.”

Given the excitement in the air and the strong participation of faith-based groups, there is often a lot of spiritual uplift vocalized in these meetings. Almost always the only Jew in the room, Pisani feels at ease.

“Everyone Christian definitely talks about Jesus,” he said. “I speak my Judaism in the room—because I’m proud of it and we share a lot of the same values.”

Pisani wasn’t always so ready to talk up his religion. Born to a Jewish mother and Italian father, he considered himself spiritual but more of a cultural “Matzah-ball Jew” growing up. There were other ways he was lost too. He left the University of Michigan before obtaining a degree and held numerous jobs helping troubled youth before obtaining a degree that would truly further his goals. Drawn to Eastern religions, he has impressive Buddha tattoos on both arms. True love brought him back to the tribe.

He met Marla Cohen more than two decades ago when both were teaching assistants at the same school in North Jersey. Both were involved in relationships at the time so nothing more than a friendship evolved. However, years later when they met up again, the flame reignited.

Pisani, then the co-owner of a bakery called Papa Ganache, known both for its delicious vegan, gluten-free and kosher cookies and for providing employment opportunities to troubled youth, moved to South Jersey.

Through Cohen, a psychologist, Pisani rediscovered his religion. He started working at the Community Center five years ago and recently finished a Master’s in public administration program at Rutgers. A yearand a-half ago, when he joined the board of Temple Har Zion, his involvement and learning grew more intense. At THZ, Pisani is head of the Men’s Club and the Mount Holly synagogue’s representative on Kenissa, a network of Jewish organizations leading efforts to redefine contemporary Judaism, according to its website.

Among Men’s Club activities, he planned a Super Bowl party that was very successful both as a fundraiser and a male-bonding event. Pisani cooked vegan cheesesteaks and his signature vegan, gluten-free cookies. Both were hits. Those cookies will very likely serve as a bridge, as he is currently seeking out funding to market “Todd the Baker” cookies as a Camden-based bakery that provides opportunity to at-risk kids. In addition, Trulight Youth Development Enterprise, his own practice, serves to empower challenged youth.

“I want to focus on kids who have been involved in the court system to give them a place to learn how to work and to work,” he said. “It is needed now and it is needed right here.” 

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