One man, one life, 85 years with Gratz

Dan Cohen took his first course at Gratz in 1932. He’s been going to Gratz ever since.

If Gratz College needed a poster child for lifelong Jewish learning, Dan Cohen would fit the bill.

At age 90 (and a half), he is one of the oldest students at Gratz, but he believes he still has much to learn. 

That’s why, every semester, Cohen can be found on campus, immersed in courses that run the gamut of Jewish education. During a recent interview, Cohen stared at his bookshelves bulging with his personal Jewish library and rattled off titles of his favorite courses.

“I’ve taken a little bit of everything,” he said. “Hebrew grammar, Hebrew poetry, the Hebrew Bible, Talmud, Cairo Geniza, the history of Zionism, liturgy, Jewish history … a whole course about evil. I’ve taken courses with most of the teachers at Gratz. Sometimes multiple courses from the same teachers, but there’s still more. I still have time.”

For as long as he can remember, Cohen has been taking classes at Gratz. A Harvard-educated attorney and a member of the Gratz College Board of Governors, Cohen enrolled in kindergarten at the Gratz School of Observation at age 5. 

That was 1932, he said. He has been going to Gratz ever since.

Cohen completed his high school diploma at Gratz. During his freshman year at Harvard College, he enrolled in several courses at Boston Hebrew College, at that time a supplementary Hebrew College like Gratz. Cohen completed his studies at Harvard Law School.

“I attended classes regularly, but I rarely wrote the papers,” he said. “I never got a master’s degree, though I certainly attended and participated in enough classes that I could have.”

Cohen moved back to Philadelphia to practice law, where he raised four children who also graduated from high school at Gratz. Meanwhile, Cohen continued to peruse the course catalog every semester and enroll in any subject that caught his attention.

“I may have occasionally missed a year, but if I did, sometimes I made it up by taking two courses the next semester,” he said. “Ever since primary grades, I have been attending Gratz whenever I could, and my wife frequently attended with me.”

Cohen retired from law at age 64, which ultimately freed up more time for his association with Gratz. He also has served on various boards, associations and task forces—often geared around adult Jewish learning or continuing education. 

Cohen’s resume includes stints with the American Association for Jewish Education and the American Jewish Committee. He has served on the Gratz College Board of Governors since 1957, he said, “give or take a year or two.”

“I have been almost everything at Gratz, from elementary school student to chairman of the board, and from teacher to carpool driver to parent,” he said. “I remember one occasion when I was attending class and serving as chairman. One day I was signing checks and I suddenly realized I was signing my teacher’s paycheck. That didn’t seem quite right, so I cut that activity out.”

Cohen said he is completely devoted to the concept of Jewish education, though he prefers the term “Jewish learning.” And he’s not planning to retire from his status as student anytime soon.

“The Jewish tradition is, in very large part, an intellectual and literary tradition,” he said. “It’s all bound up in books, and we don’t teach it as much as we should.  I have always been interested in Jewish learning, both for myself and for anyone I can find in the Jewish community who wants to learn. It’s really where I devoted a good portion of my life.”