Pictured above: Jeff and Wendy Cohen. Photo by Leni Reiss
He is the dean of humanities at Arizona State University; she is the executive director of Experience Matters.
Jeff and Wendy Cohen, relative newcomers to the Valley, already are making a mark in their respective fields.
The couple met in 1986, both seniors at the University of Rochester. “It was kind of meant to be,” Jeff says. “We lived in the same dorm that year, with Wendy rooming with a former girlfriend of mine in the room right across the hall!” (Wendy had been studying abroad the year before.)
Wendy recalls, “We were friends first and really hit it off – even though I am much funnier!” she says with a grin.
After graduation, Wendy stayed in Rochester to earn her master’s degree in public health and bachelor of arts in health and society, and Jeff left for Harvard to earn his Ph.D. in English and American literature and language, “but we kept dating long-distance,” he says. They married in 1990 and Wendy began her professional career in Cambridge at the Harvard School of Public Health. Jeff joined the Harvard faculty as well, teaching classes in history and literature.
They moved to Washington, D.C. when Jeff accepted a teaching post at George Washington University. He started in the English department and then added Judaic studies. A lifelong interest in Jewish studies and literature made this a perfect fit. “I was trained as a medievalist,” he says, “and couldn’t help but observe that literature historically emphasized the Christian world. Even in places like England, with a substantial Jewish population, it typically wasn’t part of a curriculum, although Jews were very present. This was an important story – and it wasn’t being told.”
Jeff began to focus on “examining outsiders – not the mainstream,” and, he says, “Jews historically fit that category.” He went on to chair GWU’s English department and then, for a decade, directed its medieval and early modern studies institute.
When the ASU dean of humanities position opened up, Jeff was invited to apply and was hired. He and the family made the move to the Valley, and he has been in the post fulltime since July of 2018.
“It’s going very well,” Jeff says. “This was a good choice for me. ASU makes education accessible. There is a good sense of adventure in its mission. And I totally support the Jewish Studies Program.” He finds that there is a substantial number of non-Jewish students who take the courses, “and that is a good thing.”
Wendy also comes to the Valley with impressive credentials. Most recently senior consultant for practice programs with the Maryland-based American Gastroenterological Association, she previously handled responsibilities as vice-president of practice and quality. Her experience also includes positions with the Harvard Community Health Plan and the New York State Department of Health. She brings this experience and more to her new role as executive director at Experience Matters, the Valley-based nonprofit “that engages retired professionals with nonprofit organizations to build capacity and support for meaningful social-purpose projects.”
Building on its foundation, she aims “to make an even greater impact throughout Maricopa County.” She cites the example of an INTEL retiree “with a passion for music. We found him an opportunity at the Musical Instrument Museum,” she says, “where he created a recording studio which now has become a revenue generator.”
The Cohens’ son, Alex, 21, attends Lewis and Clark University; their daughter, Katherine, 14, is at Phoenix Country Day School. Reflecting on how their lives have evolved through different jobs and locations and a growing family, Jeff says “So far, so good! Wendy and I always have worked well together. We are good partners. We take turns, and that includes grocery shopping and cooking.”
“We have great kids,” Wendy says, “and we continue to try to set a good example and instill values. We are so blessed and so appreciative.”
“It was more challenging when the kids were younger,” she says. “I ran and won an election in Maryland and served as vice-chair of the Democratic Party in Montgomery County. We’ve depended on a Google family calendar!” she admits. “We both do it all, and that includes schlepping and shopping and supporting and respecting each other.”
At this point Jeff and Wendy are also involved in renovations on their new home, visiting synagogues and finding a Jewish community of friends. “Finding like-minded people,” Wendy says.
And one more thing: Their much-loved rescue dog, Wrigley, came to the Cohens with that name while they still lived “back east,” and Jeff says the pooch loves the desert and hates the rain. With that obvious tie-in to their new life and location, the family clearly was destined to wind up here in the Valley of the Sun.