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Jewish Journal

The Bloods, the Crips and the rabbi

by Tom Tugend

January 18, 2008 | 7:00 pm

Cooper (right) at Soviet Jewry rally in Olympia, Wash., in August 1971. Courtesy Simon Wiesenthal Center

Cooper (right) at Soviet Jewry rally in Olympia, Wash., in August 1971. Courtesy Simon Wiesenthal Center

In 1970, Abraham David Cooper was arrested by Washington police during a sit-in across from the Soviet embassy and put behind bars in a jammed holding cell. The then-20-year old Yeshiva College student came away from the experience with two important observations that may have changed his life:
  • First, that he didn't like being in jail.
  • Second, that the established Jewish organizations had been missing in action in what Cooper considered the defining Jewish struggle of the time.
In the intervening 37 years, Cooper has made a point of being present in many of the world's hot spots, and, at the same time, managed to stay out of prison. And during roughly the same time span, he has played a key role in creating one of the most activist Jewish organizations in the world, working outside the boundaries of the traditional organized community structure.

Ordained as an Orthodox rabbi, Cooper's formal title today is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC). That curious academic rank is a holdover from his initial work with the SWC-affiliated Yeshiva University of Los Angeles, but it hardly defines his role and influence on this Jewish institution whose mission is to promote understanding among the world's people.

Cooper, 57, is, in most respects, the alter ego of Rabbi Marvin Hier, the founder and dean of the Wiesenthal Center, and the 33-year-long relationship in which their interaction and division of labor are defined by a kind of shorthand telepathy, requiring no organizational chart or chain of command.

But if today the SWC is a worldwide presence -- with seven offices at home and abroad, a landmark Museum of Tolerance, a reported 400,000 member families, high-profile donors and entr�(c)e to presidents and kings -- a considerable share of the credit goes to Cooper.

While Hier is the ultimate decision maker and both men respond interchangeably, and instantly, to the endless real or perceived crises facing Israel and the Jewish people around the globe, Cooper does have specific areas of responsibility and expertise.

One is interfaith relations; another is the burgeoning area of cyberspace. Cooper testified before Congress as long as six years ago that the increasing sophistication of Internet propaganda by hate groups, white supremacists and Islamic extremists was exerting growing influence among younger people.

From his Pacific-oriented vantage point in Los Angeles, Cooper is the point man for relations with Japan, China and other Far Eastern nations, introducing Holocaust exhibits, exposing anti-Semitic literature, and establishing ties with political and religious leaders.

"Abe is the Wiesenthal Center's ambassador to most of the world," Hier said.

This "ambassador" also shows up in some unexpected places and situations.

Last year, for instance, Cooper was drafted as witness to a peace treaty signed by the so-called O.G.s (original gangster), the founding elders of the Bloods and the Crips, two of the most fearful rival gangs in South Los Angeles.

He was recruited for the assignment by Katy Haber, a London-born film producer, who has been working for many years with at-risk youth and the homeless in the African American community.

Haber had met Cooper while working as a docent at the Museum of Tolerance and had no doubt that he was the right man to win the confidence of the gang members.

"Who would be more appropriate than a man who works on conflict resolution with world leaders?" Haber asked rhetorically. "Besides, he is a man of deep intellect, extraordinary sensitivity, and one of the major humanitarians in our community."

In the introductory meeting and after guiding the O.G.s through the Museum of Tolerance, Cooper complemented the broad lesson of mutual understanding with concrete specifics on community activism, finding jobs and how to deal with authorities.

Cooper said he has no particular formula or technique for bringing opposing sides to the table or bridging differences.

"Part of it is my background as a New Yorker, an American and a Jew, which has given me a certain quiet self-assurance," he said. "Another part is the example set early on by my father."

By way of contrast, Cooper was on the other side of the world last summer, on the Indonesian island of Bali. He was there as the organizer of the "Tolerance between Religions" conference, which brought together such unlikely participants as leading Muslim, Hindu and Jewish religious leaders, victims of the three faiths targeted by suicide bombers, and a Holocaust survivor.

In one speech, carried by Arab networks and worldwide, former president Abdurrahman Wahid of Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation in the world, upbraided Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for his denial of the Holocaust.

Cooper's organizing partner was C. Holland Taylor, CEO of the Libforall Foundation, which works with Muslim religious, educational, business and entertainment leaders to stem the spread of Islamic extremism.

After the Bali conference, Taylor and Cooper led a high-profile peace delegation from Indonesia, which has no diplomatic relations with Israel, on a weeklong mission to the Jewish state.

The experience impressed Taylor, who in a phone call from Indonesia described Cooper as "a brilliant strategist, who grasps immediately what can be done and who can juggle a dozen issues simultaneously."

In the relationship between the Wiesenthal Center's two top men, Cooper's loyalty and admiration for Hier is unquestioned, but there is one easily noticed distinction between the two Orthodox rabbis.

As the Center's clout has increased over the years, so has criticism of the institution within the general, and Orthodox, communities.

Complaints, mostly sotto voce, are aimed at the center's alleged intrusions on the turfs of older community organizations, its political influence, the high salaries paid its top executives, violations of standards for nonprofit organizations, alarmist tactics and, in Israel, plans to build a $200 million Center for Human Dignity/Museum of Tolerance in the heart of Jerusalem.

In practically all these criticisms, the target is Hier, who is sometimes described, in awe, fear or derision, as a "New York street fighter." By contrast, Cooper gets off unscathed.

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