Nina Morais Cohen distinguished herself as a writer, teacher, and community leader of her adopted home of Minneapolis, Minnesota. The daughter of a scholar and community leader, her life and work exemplified the ideals of her father, the longtime rabbi of Philadelphia’s Ritual bathMikveh Israel and a founder and first president of the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Named Bonina, or Tobah, at birth, the eldest child of Sabato and Clara Esther (Weil) Morais was born in Philadelphia, on December 6, 1855. Nina’s father (b.1823) was an immigrant from Livorno, Italy, who served the London Jewish community for six years before arriving in Philadelphia in 1851. He held the post of rabbi of Mikveh Israel (succeeding Isaac Leeser) from 1851 until his death in 1897. Nina’s mother, Clara Weil, was American-born, the daughter of a German immigrant.
Nina graduated from the Girls’ Normal School, where her abilities in many subjects, especially literature, made her a popular tutor and teacher. She also served as a superintendent of the Southern Branch of Philadelphia’s Hebrew Sunday School.
Clara Weil Morais died in 1872 when Nina was seventeen years old, and the remaining six children, two boys and four girls, ranged in age from twelve to three. Providing child-rearing assistance to her father may explain why Nina married relatively late in life, at age thirty. In 1885, she married Emanuel Cohen, a native of Carbondale, Pennsylvania, a small town northeast of Scranton. The two of them set out for Minneapolis in 1886.
Nina Cohen’s reputation as an intellectual and champion of woman suffrage dates from her years in Philadelphia. She was an active writer, a contributor to Jewish and secular journals, a teacher, and a public speaker on literary as well as political topics. In Minneapolis, she, like her husband, rose to leadership in both the Jewish and non-Jewish communities. Her husband, an attorney and graduate of Williams College, became a successful insurance lawyer, was a member of the city’s first Charter Commission, and was the local agent for the Baron de Hirsch Fund. Cohen’s activities in the larger community included her unwavering support of woman suffrage. She hosted Susan B. Anthony when she visited Minneapolis. She was an organizer and charter member of the Woman’s City Club, and also headed the Minneapolis campaign to raise funds for a memorial to Shelley and Keats to be built in Rome.
However, it was to the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) that Nina Morais Cohen devoted her greatest energies. In 1893, she attended the Congress of Religions in Chicago, organized as part of the World Columbian Exposition, and was present at the founding of the council. On her return to Minneapolis, she began to organize a local section, founded on July 25, 1894. A few months later, she helped to organize the St. Paul Section and to establish their study program. She served as president of the Minneapolis Section from 1894 to 1907, vice president for Minnesota, and led an ambitious study program devoted to biblical subjects, Jewish literature, and history. For thirteen years, Cohen conducted Saturday afternoon study sessions for NCJW members in her home, and she is credited with influencing and inspiring many future communal leaders.
Nina Morais Cohen’s death on February 19, 1918, was marked by a prominent notice in the Minneapolis Journal signed by representatives of the National Council of Jewish Women, the Woman’s City Club, Minnesota Women’s Suffrage Association, the public library, and the College Women’s Club—clear evidence of her influence and interests.
AJYB 7 (1905–1906): 49.
Friedman, Murray, ed. Jewish Life in Philadelphia: 1830–1940 (1983).
Marcus, Jacob R. The American Jewish Woman: A Documentary History (1987).
“Memorial Resolution.” Minneapolis Journal, February 23, 1918.
Morais, Henry S. The Jews of Philadelphia (1894).
Plaut, W. Gunther. The Jews in Minnesota: The First 75 Years (1959).
Rogow, Faith. Gone to Another Meeting: The National Council of Jewish Women, 1893–1993 (1993).
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Endelman, Judith E.. "Nina Morais Cohen." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on September 18, 2019) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/cohen-nina-morais>.