In our August 5 issue, the Ledger introduced several spiritual leaders who are new to Connecticut congregations “B’ruchim Havaim: Introducing Connecticut’s New Clergy.” Among them was Ken Cohen, the new cantor at Hebrew Wizards in Greenwich. We did not realize at the time that there are two Ken Cohens who are members of the Cantors Assembly, a national organization. Unfortunately, some of the information culled from the site for use in the article referred to the “other” Ken Cohen. We apologize to both cantors, and we take this opportunity to “re-introduce” the Hebrew Wizards new cantor.
Ken Cohen can pinpoint three early experiences that determined his future career path. The first was walking into Mid-Island Hebrew Day School on Long Island at eight every morning during his childhood. “There’d be 300 kids lining the hallway, and we’d all say the Pledge of Allegiance and then sing ‘HaTikvah,’” he recalls. “I still remember that sound, and how, through song, I felt connected to others.”
The second was sitting in an old shul in Rockaway Beach, Long Island with his grandmother on Shabbat. “We’d get there at eight, an hour before the service started, and she’d sit quietly, even though there was no one else in the sanctuary,” he says. “I’d ask why we were there and she’d say, ‘We’re here to pray before we pray, tatteleh sheyna.’”
Then there was the junior congregation Cohen attended, run by teens from his synagogue. “For an hour and a half without pause, they would keep singing and singing the service,” he says. “So I have my grandma teaching me about the beautiful still voice inside each of us, and I have the joy of communal singing.”
It’s no wonder, then, that Cohen eventually found his way to the cantorate, though the route was somewhat circuitous.
After graduating high school, where he was a member of the concert and marching bands, the choir and the barbershop quartet, he attended Stony Brook University, SUNY, and the Harpur College of Arts and Sciences at Binghamton University SUNY, earning a BA in history. Then, while considering law school, Cohen met with baritone David Clatworthy, then professor of music at Binghamton, who convinced him to study voice. Cohen changed paths and earned a Masters in ethno-musicology, focusing on Jewish music.
He was invested in 1982 at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and pursued a PhD in ethno-musicology at New York University, studying the Sephardic Jewish communities in Brooklyn.
Cohen interviewed for positions all over the country and chose Congregation Shearith Israel in Dallas, the third-largest Conservative congregation in the U.S., with more than 2,000 member families. Just after he’d signed the contract, Rabbi Hillel Silverman of Temple Sholom in Greenwich offered him a job. But Cohen was already committed.
“Only five percent of the cantor’s job is singing, acting as a ‘holy vessel’ or a conduit for people’s prayers. I had never had the opportunity to touch so many,” Cohen says. “Even on a Tuesday afternoon, at one of the remote satellite locations, I would walk into an auditorium with my guitar and sing with 250 kids.”
Eventually, Cohen and Silverman crossed paths again, and the cantor came to Greenwich, serving at Temple Sholom from 1984 to 2005. While there, he became close friends with fellow educator Deborah Salomon, who later created Hebrew Wizards, a Hebrew school and family congregation in Greenwich. He then taught at the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York, where he created a curriculum for cantors, later establishing the academy’s cantorial school.
At a cantors’ convention in California in the late ’90s, Cohen learned that there were no dedicated cantorial schools on the West Coast. He laid the groundwork for a school in Westwood, L.A., affiliated with the Academy for Jewish Religion.
After leaving Temple Sholom, Cohen was offered a job at Congregation B’nai Israel (“Village Temple”) in Greenwich Village. While at the cantors’ placement office in New York, he noticed a little ad for a part-time position at Beth Shir Shalom – Home of the Song of Peace in Santa Monica, Calif.
“Unfortunately, today there are so many jobs where people are seen as interchangeable commodities,” Cohen says. “I realized that I was tired of fulfilling a function and being seen as what I do. I wanted to do creative experimentation and nurture the creative spirit in others.” He spoke with the head of the Beth Shir Shalom search committee and was hooked by one word.
“When I asked why their cantor was leaving, I was told that he needed to find a job closer to his family,” he recalls. “The woman told me, ‘We miss him, we miss his love.’ Everyone else I’d interviewed talked about the role I’d play. These people were talking about love, about nurturing the spirit and the community.”
Cohen took the job and moved with his family to Santa Monica in 2007. While there, Cohen built a career center and strengthened the synagogue’s role and participation in the interfaith community. He led the congregation in efforts to help the local homeless population, and composed music for the temple’s ensemble of well-known L.A. musicians.
On a visit back east in April, Cohen met up with his old friend, Deborah Salomon, who mentioned that her cantor at Hebrew Wizards was leaving and asked him to consider working with her over the High Holidays. The two discussed creative ways to collaborate. Cohen left Beth Shir Shalom in June. He will split his time between Hebrew Wizards and new endeavors in L.A.
“Over the last 10 years, membership in the Conservative movement has dropped something like 25 percent,” Cohen says. “When I think about the richness that our sacred wisdom offers the world, and after 30 years championing the best of what Judaism has to offer, I see that much of the creativity and passion have been lost. This year, I want to find ways to revive that Jewish spirit.”