December 14, 2018

Albert “Albie” Cohen

Eleven years ago, environmental attorney Albert “Albie” Cohen was representing about 200 people in a lawsuit, and after resolving the case and making all of the distributions, he had about $10,000 remaining. The problem was that with so many people involved in the suit, each of the clients would have received at most just $50 dollars each.

“It was too complicated to return the money to them,” Cohen said in a recent telephone interview, “So I sent out an email and said, ‘Does anybody mind if I give this money to charity?’ ”

Nobody minded.

One of Cohen’s co-workers suggested to him that he donate to The Giving Spirit, a local charity based in Westwood that provides aid to homeless people, giving them “survival kits” that include key sustenance items for getting by on the streets.

The donation Cohen made to The Giving Spirit was perhaps the largest single one the organization had ever received up to that point. So the staff gave Cohen a call and asked him to come out to Westwood to meet with them. He got more involved with the organization, but his involvement was limited because most of the group’s packing and distributing is done on Shabbat, which Cohen observes — he’s a member of B’nai David-Judea Congregation.

Not a regular volunteer before his involvement with The Giving Spirit, Cohen didn’t want to stop giving tzedakah just because he couldn’t be present one day a week. So he brought The Giving Spirit’s spirit to B’nai David, creating a matanot l’evyonim program for each Purim, through which B’nai David members would assemble and distribute hundreds of survival kits with things such as hats, gloves, bandages and hand lotion, as well as peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches.

The name of the initiative — Project PB&J.

In addition, Cohen created and runs a B’nai David chapter of The Giving Spirit, through which shul members can distribute The Giving Spirit’s survival kits around Christmastime.

Project PB&J, which now distributes about 800 kits a year, costs about $5,000  annually to run — which is covered by a few donors — and over the years has included volunteers from synagogues and Jewish groups in Los Angeles, San Diego and Oakland, including Temple Emanuel, Temple Beth Am and NCSY.

On Purim night, when many Jews drink until they figuratively (some literally) can’t tell the difference between Mordechai and Haman, Cohen and his volunteers are in the B’nai David social hall lined up in two assembly lines — one for the PB&J sandwiches; one for survival items such as hats and gloves. The next day, volunteers take as many kits as they want and hand them out to those in need in places such as Pico-Robertson, Santa Monica, Venice and downtown’s Skid Row.

“Once somebody sees you, the word spreads very quickly, and you have lots of people coming,” Cohen said, adding that he tries to find places on “the fringes,” where a huge crowd is less likely to develop. “The problem is you get overwhelmed; it’s kind of sad.”

He added that when large, sometimes unruly crowds have formed, often some of the homeless people in the crowd will step up to help establish order.

“It will start to get like that and then one of them will say, ‘Hey, guys, stop it! We need to line up,’ ” Cohen said.

Cohen doesn’t think of himself as a mensch. “There are many people that really do a lot of good stuff. I feel like I don’t, so I have to work at it,” he said.” “You sometimes get a little frustrated or a little tired, but no, I’ve got to do this. This is the one thing I do.”