January 18, 2008
The Bloods, the Crips and the rabbi
(Page 3 - Previous Page)"I keep the set as a reminder of just how poor our immigrant ancestors were and that they went through very tough times, which are not that far away."
Young Abe attended Yeshiva Flatbush in the 1950s, where his father also taught, and the combination of the two helped shape Cooper's life-long outlook.
"My father was the greatest educator I have ever known. He treated his youngest students with respect, was an ardent Zionist -- as was the yeshiva -- and was completely non-judgmental about other Jews," Cooper said. "He loved them all."
In 1968, Cooper packed up and spent 18 months at a more rigidly Orthodox yeshiva in Jerusalem, then earned a bachelor's degree in history at Yeshiva College, the undergraduate division of New York's Yeshiva University, in 1972.
Cooper's older brother had become a doctor, so it followed, according to American Jewish family rules, that the next in line would become a lawyer.
He applied and was accepted by New York University's law school. But before he started, Cooper wanted to visit the Soviet Union.
"I couldn't stand any more Soviet Jewry demonstrations," he recalled. "I had to go over and see for myself."
The one-month trip to six Soviet cities, his encounters with refuseniks and the KGB, changed Cooper's life and priorities.
"I learned what it really meant to be an activist; it was more than signing petitions or attending protest rallies," Cooper said. "Here were people who put their lives on the line to live as Jews. This was serious business."
In 1974, the recently married Coopers (they now have three daughters and four grandchildren) experienced a different aspect of the Jewish struggle. They volunteered to work at the Israeli development town of Kiryat Shemona, abutting the Lebanon border and the recent site of a bloody terrorist attack.
On his return to New York, Cooper accepted an offer to run a youth camp in Vancouver, Canada, and there he met Hier, then the young spiritual leader of an Orthodox congregation.
"The first time I saw Rabbi Hier I thought, 'That man is really something else,'" Cooper said. "He was also the first pulpit rabbi I knew who seemed to be enjoying himself."
Within a short time, Hier asked Cooper to serve as principal of the synagogue day school and then take over his pulpit during a six-month sabbatical.
The Cooper family had just settled down when Hier announced, in 1976, that he was moving to Los Angeles to establish a yeshiva. He asked Cooper to come along as teacher and director of admissions.
Shortly afterward, Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal acceded to Hier's request that he lend his name to a new activist center in Los Angeles. In 1977, the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies was in business with no furniture and one phone with a very long extension chord.
Now, three decades later, Cooper's reminiscences and anecdotes of battles, mostly won, meetings with world leaders, campaigns organized and new causes advocated could fill a hefty book.
Cooper likes to quote Rabbi Norman Lamm that "90 percent of leadership is showing up," and following the dictum, he accumulates well over 100,000 miles a year during business trips.
He could probably have saved some flying time if the Wiesenthal Center had joined all other major national Jewish organizations in establishing headquarters on the East Coast, but Cooper has no regrets about being based in Los Angeles. On the contrary, he said, in New York or Washington you have the "Jewish one foul tip law -- one mistake and you're out."
On the West Coast, by contrast, "it's not a sin to fail now and then. We're more open minded out here, and we could never have achieved what we did if we were on the East Coast."
Cooper is sometimes asked what the Wiesenthal Center will do after the last Nazi war criminal has died.
"While we will never waver in our responsibility to the memory of the Six Million, we have never been just about the past," he responded. "We Jews have had a lousy record in anticipating future attacks and threats, but they will come. The earlier we recognize and oppose them, the better."
One crisis Cooper sees on the horizon is the UN World Conference Against Racism, which debuted in 2001 in Durban, South Africa, and turned into a hate fest against Israel and the United States.
Cooper was part of the Jewish response team in Durban, and he fears a repetition in 2009, when the conference will reconvene at a yet undetermined location.
He and the Wiesenthal Center's European director will travel to Jerusalem in late February to meet with leaders of Jewish organizations from other countries to map out a joint approach.
"Some of the nations most hostile to Israel and the United States will play leading roles at the 2009 conference," Cooper warned. "It may turn out to be even more invidious than the Durban meeting, so we had better prepare for it now."
With then-Argentine Senator (now President) Christina Fernandez de Kirchner at the Museum of Tolerance, July 2005. Courtesy Simon Wiesenthal Center