It was a blind date in 1976, one of the hundreds that happen every night in New York City, that set the stage for Sandra Cahn to devote her life’s work to Judaism.
Her date — and eventual husband of 47 years, Stewart Cahn — had been given her telephone number by a colleague one year before, but he had never made the call to “Sandy.” He carried her number in his pocket for the entire year, and, when they finally made their date, he took her to the world-famous ice rink at Rockefeller Center.
“I didn’t ice skate though,” Sandy Cahn says.
It was the second date that sealed the deal when Stewart took her to the Tony Awards. “That was it,” she says.
The greatest gift from Stewart was to come.
“He was an activist, fighting to support Jewish people around the world, helping to rescue them from persecution in their countries,” she says. “Israel was still a fledgling country, and Jews from around the world wanted to get there and be a part of their country.”
On their honeymoon, the newly married Cahns visited Poland, Romania, Israel and Paris. The plight of Jewish people in those countries astounded Cahn and set her on her journey working with Jewish organizations across the globe.
“This was before the Iron Curtain fell,” she says. “These were dangerous places for Jews, and I saw firsthand what the United Jewish Appeal (UJA) Federation was doing for those who were afraid to practice their faith and were trying to escape antiSemitism in their countries.
“They were getting people out of their countries, getting them to Israel, giving them a new life free of the fear of being Jewish,” Cahn explains.
On Monday, May 15, she will be receiving the Defender of Zion Award at the UJA Women’s Heart Matters fundraiser. She will be honored alongside Carol B. Einiger, recipient of the Heart Matters Award, and Amy Goldberg Michel, who will receive the Lotte Bravmann z”/ Eishet Chayil Award.
“It is a tremendous event, and I am humbled to be recognized with Carol and Amy,” Cahn says.
Cahn’s path has been interesting. She earned a B.A. and M.A. from Queens College. Before getting involved in UJA, she worked by day in the office supply, printing and furniture business. Throughout her career, she was also executive director of the Parkinson’s and Dystonia Foundation and regional director of the Diabetes Research Institute Foundation.
When she joined UJA Women, she would meet with the group at night.
“I was able to continue working during the day and pursue this passion of helping Jews from everywhere as part of this incredible group,” Cahn says.
UJA Women cultivates a community of leaders, advocates, donors and doers. A philosophy of Tikkun Olam — a Hebrew saying that translates to “repair of the world” — is at the core of the collective power of the group as they work together to address both ongoing and emergent needs of Jews around the world.
“The goal of the UJA Federation is clear,” Cahn says. “The organization works to improve the lives of Jewish people, no matter the location, and to help them embrace their heritage.”
More than 24,000 support UJA because the power and global network are beyond comparison.
Cahn devoted her life to the cause. She has served as the national chair of women’s philanthropy of the Jewish Federations of North America and women’s chair of UJA Federation, served on the Executive Committee of National Hillel, is a past president of Hillel of Queens College, and served on the Women’s National Young Leadership Cabinet.
She is the co-chair of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene and of Lead On, a major initiative of women’s philanthropy whose mission is to retain former UJA leadership involvement. She also sits on the Board of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
She also co-founded UJA’s Women’s Executive Circle, a group serving senior executives of major corporations, whose mission is to mentor young Jewish women in the business community.
“Women give their time and money differently than men,” Cahn says. “When women become involved in philanthropy, there is a different focus, a different passion, and they bring in families in a different way. It’s not just writing a check.”
Cahn is quick to note, however, that UJA’s supporters are fervent and dedicated despite race, creed or color.
The work of the UJA Federation has become even more critical in recent years as anti-Semitism is on the rise both domestically and on every continent. Currently, the war in Ukraine has created a dire need for UJA and other advocates to rescue Jews from continued attacks.
“We are doing incredibly important work rescuing Ukrainian Jews,” she says. “There is a new generation of Jews who are caught in the war and they want safety and freedom.”
Connecting to their Jewish heritage is life changing.
“There is a tremendous desire, a true excitement, for these young people to be Jewish,” Cahn notes. “They love the song, dance, lighting the candles on Sabbath.”
She is also the co-founder of Limmud FSU with her partner Chaim Chesler, who lives in Israel. The group is “an innovative pluralistic program connecting Jews from the former Soviet Union to their heritage through informal Jewish learning,” she explains.
The group operates in nine countries, already touching over 90,000 young Jews from the FSU.
The organization held an event in Berlin that brought together 750 young Jews in Europe. Cahn was astounded at the lengths to which some went to be a part of the event.
“Of the 750 who joined us, 90 came from Odessa,” she says. “They endured a 40-hour bus ride, there and back. That dedication illustrates how important this work can be.”
On the eve of the UJA Women’s Heart Matters fundraiser, which brings together women from all five boroughs, Westchester and Long Island, Cahn is reflective and remains passionately attached to her organizations.
She also thanks her husband Stewart for his role in igniting her philanthropic flame and helping her connect with her Jewish heritage in ways she had not known before they met and married.
She and Stewart have homes in Manhattan, Florida and Westhampton. She loves her time on the East End, her favorite places to eat being Flora and Fauna, the popular restaurants in Westhampton Beach that continue to rise in popularity.
In the end, she comes back to the start of her mission, and how she has made it this far and helped the organizations she works with achieve so much good.
“It is because of my husband. Stewart has always been there, supporting me,” Cahn says. “He opened my eyes to the importance of this work. He set me on this journey. I love my life, and I love everything I do. And, there is still much to accomplish.”
Todd Shapiro is an award-winning publicist and associate publisher of Dan’s Papers.