Victim of drunken driver in 2005, he helps inspire a new generation

The Baltimore Sun

When Joe Cohen waxes nostalgic about his teen years in the early 1970s, he thinks of the basketball tournaments and pizza parties with a local Jewish boys club. As a president of the local chapter, he formed lifelong bonds with his peers and developed pride in his religion and culture.

Now the Millersville resident is ushering in a new era for the long-dormant club known as Aleph, Zadik, Aleph, letters that start the Hebrew words for fraternal love, benevolence and harmony. Cohen is reviving the Anne Arundel County Colonial AZA chapter in the name of a Jewish teen who died in August 2005 in a highly publicized car accident.

David Snyder, 16, of Arnold was killed when a drunken driver slammed into the back of the car he was riding in during a burger run with two buddies in Severna Park. The crash also killed Kevin Durm and injured Nick Kirby, both then 16 and from Arnold.

Cohen hopes the boys in a new AZA chapter will look up to Snyder as a role model. He was a smart, athletic, well-mannered leader who embraced his religion, Cohen said.

The chapter name also honors the lifelong friendship Cohen has had with Snyder's father, Larry. The two grew up a half a block apart in Annapolis, and both joined and became president of their AZA chapter.

"We did everything together," Cohen said.

Since AZA's founding in 1924 in Omaha, Neb., it has focused on athletics, social activities, education, community service and Judaic teachings. Members are in grades nine through 12, although eighth-graders are allowed to join toward the end of the school year.

The Colonial AZA Chapter was founded in 1939, faded away during World War II and resurfaced in the 1960s, Cohen said. Because of a lack of leadership, the group folded again in the 1980s, he said.

The new chapter has held several preliminary meetings since March but needs four more members before it can have the 12 necessary to be officially recognized by its parent group, the B'nai B'rith Youth Organization. The organization also has a girls component, B'nai B'rith Girls.

The David Snyder AZA is planning its inaugural breakfast at 10:30 a.m. Sunday at Congregation Kneseth Israel. Bernie Swerbilow, a charter member of the Colonial AZA chapter founded in 1939, will be there along with other alumni and members of the Baltimore Council.

David Snyder embodied the best of what AZA tries to impart, Cohen said. He conducted the entire Sabbath service at his bar mitzvah. Most boys typically lead only part of it.

At the time of Snyder's death, the Severn School sophomore was a few months away from being the starting point guard on his basketball team. "He was very moral," Cohen said. "He always did the right thing, and he took pride in what he did."

It was Cohen's suggestion that the AZA chapter be named for Snyder. When he mentioned the idea at one of the chapter's initial meetings, the teen members immediately took to it, even though some of them had never met Snyder, Cohen said.

Barrett Kirby, whose older brother survived the accident, said he likes the prospect that the chapter's name might remind teens not to drink and drive. The 15-year-old freshman at Broadneck High School will be installed as treasurer of the chapter at the breakfast, and the group plans to bring in a speaker from Mothers Against Drunk Driving later.

"I think it's good to have him remembered," Barrett said.

Cohen, the adult adviser to the new AZA chapter, then approached his old friend Larry Snyder to make sure that he approved of naming the club for his son.

"It was an honor," said Snyder, who lives in Arnold with his wife, Kay, and 16-year-old son, Philip. Snyder plans to speak at the breakfast but he will not be involved in running the chapter. He believes AZA is important because it helps keep Jewish teens connected when many are spread out around the county.

"This gives them the chance to get together," he said.

Cohen said it is important to revive the organization because many Jewish families are not affiliated with a particular synagogue. Some are single-parent households and need more direction and support, he said.

"I got so much out of it when I was a member. ... I wanted to give back and have these kids know the brotherhood of the AZA," Cohen said.

His son, Jake, said he doesn't always feel comfortable talking about his religion in front of his non-Jewish peers.

"I think it's great that we can be together and be open about being Jewish," said Jake, who will be chapter president.

Jake Ziff, 14, a freshman at Severna Park High School, said he is looking forward to getting involved in the group's activities.

"I can't wait until it gets started and more people join," Jake Ziff said.

Sunday's breakfast will begin at 10:30 a.m. at Congregation Kneseth Israel, 1125 Spa Road in Annapolis. Tickets cost $10 in advance or $14 at the door. For information, call Joe Cohen at 410-729-8442.

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