Man with white beard
Paul Cohen (Courtesy/SF Hillel)

Paul Cohen, 74, LGBTQ advocate and giant in Jewish community

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

When it came to helping the Bay Area Jewish community thrive, Paul Cohen was an idea-generating machine. 

Friends say he’d crank out suggestions by the dozen. To his credit — as shown by decades of dedication to San Francisco Hillel, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, Menorah Park, Jewish LearningWorks and his synagogue, Congregation Sha’ar Zahav — his ideas were good, and they stuck.

An LGBTQ activist, indefatigable Jewish community insider and friend to all, Paul Cohen died Feb. 22 after a fall at his home in Mill Valley. He was 74.

“Paul was a gift to the Jewish community,” said Beth Cousens, chief impact officer at the Federation. “He cared about everyone, particularly about connecting them to the core of the tradition he loved, and particularly when he could expand the boundaries of what it meant to be Jewish. He was always ready to be of support, to talk through something hard, or just bring you brownies.”

Added Sha’ar Zahav Cantor Sharon Bernstein, “There was never a time that Paul didn’t show up. There was never a time when he didn’t convince others to show up with him.”

Born in Jackson Heights, Queens, Cohen studied health care administration at George Washington University before embarking on a career in the health care sector. After relocating to San Francisco in 1979, he settled in for a lifetime of connections to the Bay Area’s LGBTQ+ and Jewish communities, the nexus of which was Sha’ar Zahav, a largely LGBTQ shul for which he served as board president in its early years. 

It wasn’t the only institution he served. He also sat on the boards of the JCC of San Francisco, the Bureau of Jewish Education (now known as Jewish LearningWorks), InterfaithFamily Bay Area and the Jewish Community Federation.

“I was not necessarily the first gay man on these boards,” Cohen wrote in a Federation blog in 2013, “but I was able to teach an understanding of the needs of the gay and lesbian community.”

Another of his passions was Hillel, serving as the Northern California director of campus advancement for Hillel International. He also sat on the board of S.F. Hillel. Its executive director, Rachel Nilson Ralston, said Cohen “transformed our organization — locally and nationally — for the better.”

“Paul understood that Hillel is an on-ramp for Jewish adult involvement and is often the last chance we have to instill pride and foster belonging,” Ralston added. “He generously lent his leadership, passion and resources to ensure we made a difference in so many arenas, on multiple campuses.”

In 2017, when Cohen was honored at a Hillel gala, he told J., “Each of us has the opportunity to nurture and mentor — whether children of our own, co-workers, or people we come across through organizational relationships. This is one of the greatest gifts we have to offer.”

As a product of a strong Jewish education, Cohen also devoted time and energy to Jewish LearningWorks. CEO Dana Sheanin mourned his loss.

“He continued to support us beyond his board service,” she said, “in particular by staying connected to and mentoring quite a few of our staff members. As one of my colleagues said yesterday, ‘While he didn’t have his own children, he had so many children in the community.’ His loss is palpable to our team.”

Sha’ar Zahav Rabbi Mychal Copeland first got to know Cohen when he hired her as rabbi of Hillel at Stanford. As board president of InterfaithFamily Bay Area (renamed 18Doors in 2020), he hired her again to serve as director, and finally a third time when she came to lead Sha’ar Zahav. She remembers him as someone who always took time to help out, sometimes one fellow Jew at a time.

Copeland remembered a trans woman new to the congregation who initially had a hard time feeling comfortable in her new synagogue home. Sometime later, she came to the rabbi and asked for help writing the word “Todah” (Hebrew for thank you) on a card. It was a card for Cohen.

She said, ‘He saw me,’” Copeland recalled. “Other people didn’t know what to make of me, but he saw me as capable.’”

One of Cohen’s most successful initiatives at Sha’ar Zahav was Journeys to Judaism, a multipronged program to welcome interfaith couples, non-Jews and those interested in becoming Jews. It is still going strong today.

Also going strong was his 36-year love affair with husband Robert Gutterman.

As for being that one-man ideas machine, Copeland says Cohen would “call anybody who worked alongside him in the Jewish professional world, and he would download 50 ideas he had had that week.

“He would say, ‘I know you don’t have to do all of these; I’m just putting it out there.’ He was always looking for ways to better the Jewish community.”

Paul Cohen is survived by his spouse of 35 years, Dr. Robert Gutterman, siblings Marc (Jane) of Fort Worth, Texas, and Ellen Hass (Steven) of Boynton Beach, Florida. Donations in his memory can be made to Congregation Sha’ar Zahav or San Francisco Hillel.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.