By Stacey Dresner
WEST HARTFORD, Connecticut – When Cantor Sanford Cohn arrived at The Emanuel Synagogue in West Hartford, Connecticut in 1999, he was thrilled to be following in the footsteps of the synagogue’s legendary longtime cantor Arthur Koret, who was considered to be one of the best 20th-century American cantors.
“It was awe-inspiring to assume the position that had been occupied by such a great of the cantorial world,” Cohn told the Jewish Ledger in 2019, as he was about to be honored at a special Cantor’s Concert at the Emanuel.
As awed as he was by Koret’s stature, Cohn gained his own reputation over his 21 years at Emanuel for his love of Judaism and music and his devotion to his congregants.
On Sunday, May 22, after battling cancer for more than two years, Cantor Cohn died at his home in West Hartford, with his wife, Beth Polebaum, and their three children, Shoshana, Aryeh and Gavriel, by his side.
At his funeral, held at Emanuel on Monday, May 23, Cohn – known as ‘Sandy’ to family and friends – was remembered as a devoted family man and a true mensch.
“He was an integral and beloved part of Emanuel and of the Greater Hartford Jewish community,” Emanuel’s spiritual leader, Rabbi David Small, told those gathered.
“As a pastoral leader Hazzan Cohn became an able and willing partner in caring for and being there for our people in their most joyful and most trying moments,” said Small, who worked beside Cohn for more than 20 years.
“Whether singing gently during a brit milah or baby naming or comforting a family at the bedside of a dying loved one, his sensitivity and neshama – soul – were evident in these intimate moments, as well as in the grandeur of the High Holy Days,” Small added. “Sandy had a special touch, a kindness, a presence for people in these times that brought them much peace and comfort…His support and partnership helped me as well. And I am forever grateful for the honor of sharing this path with him.”
But serving as the congregation’s cantor was only one of Cohn’s jobs.
“His other full-time job that he loved was being our Abba,” said his daughter Shoshana. “No matter how busy he got at the school he was back for family dinner at 6 p.m. sharp. It was over these dinners we would talk about our day, our issues, shared jokes.”
“He took so much pride seeing us succeed in each of our own ways and was supportive of whatever winding path we each took,” said his son Aryeh. “As many of you know he was an encouraging teacher, patient and kind. And he parented the same way.”
“In his last days Abba began writing an ethical will – a letter to each of us regarding the values he wished to instill in us,” noted Gavriel. “But I’m sorry Abba, you’ve already done that. Your compassion, empathy and capacity for forgiveness was in everything you did.”
The three children supported their mother as she got up to speak about her “sweet singer.”
“I think we knew we wanted to spend our lives together almost from the moment we met. I even pretended to be interested in an organ concert, and a bit later in whale music, when he asked me out,” Polebaum recounted. “He filled my life with music — playing the guitar, singing in my ear when we danced, filling our home with his beautiful tenor voice. We expected, of course, for our lives together to last much longer. But I find solace that the almost 40 years of marriage we had were full and well lived.”
Born in Kansas City, Missouri and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, Sanford Dean Cohn was the son of Mary Louise and the late William Cohn. His father was an amateur singer, who had sung on USO radio during World War II and performed in musicals at the family’s Reform temple. His love of music influenced Sandy and his older brother, Mark. Both played guitar and would play 60s folk and rock music together at home.
At the University of Kentucky, Cohn majored in linguistics and minored in computer science. He worked as a computer programmer for two years after college. It was during that time he became affiliated with a Conservative synagogue in Louisville and began studying with Rabbi Simcha King and Cantor Marshall Portnoy, who encouraged him to become a cantor.
Cohn gradually became more observant and more learned about traditional Judaism. He spent six months in Israel and went on to study at the Cantors Institute at the Jewish Theological Seminary (now the H.L. Miller Cantorial School), graduating in 1982.
That same year he married Polebaum, a student at New York University School of Law. They settled in Manhattan, where she practiced law and he served at his first pulpit – Congregation Knesset Tifereth Israel in Port Chester, New York.
Over the years, he served at Whitestone Hebrew Center in Queens, New York, Temple Israel in Silver Spring, Maryland, and Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Winnipeg, Canada.
Together with Cantor Joseph Ness of Beth El Temple in West Hartford, Cohn co-founded a local chapter of HaZamir, the noted national Jewish teen choir.
“Sandy was the beloved conductor of HaZamir Hartford for many years,” said Vivian Lazar, director of HaZamir: The International Jewish Teen Choir and Zamir Choral Foundation. “He built a vibrant HaZamir chapter and remained devoted to HaZamir even throughout the years of his illness.”
In late 2019, following Cohn’s cancer diagnosis, he retired from his post at Emanuel. It was then his longtime friend Rabbi Earl Kideckel of Congregation Beth El asked him to step in as High Holiday cantor at the New London synagogue. After the High Holidays, Cohn’s was appointed Beth El’s cantor-in-residence, becoming a fixture at the synagogue’s Zoom Friday night services, and later, as services once again were in-person, playing his guitar and singing at services that ranged from Lag B’omer celebrations to Shabbat on the beach.
In his eulogy, Kideckel spoke directly to his friend.
“These past two and a half years you have been my inspiration. I found comfort in knowing you were there, even part-time, all the way in West Hartford. Congregation Beth El of New London was reinvigorated by your special soul and spirit and, as Beth shared with me, those Friday nights often rocked your house,” said Kideckel.
Cantor Cohn also rocked the Emanuel for years, introducing the congregation to “Ruach Shabbats” featuring a band of instrument-playing congregants, and Cohn on guitar, presiding over the exhilarating musical service.
Cantor Ness was also a close colleague and friend of Cantor Cohn.
“We worked on countless concerts,” said Ness, who also sang the 121st psalm at the funeral. “He was very open to making music and prayer with me and we would always talk about the next concert. Or we would just get together to talk about life. He was a really great guy. I would be kind of deep in my work and wouldn’t call and then he would call out of the blue – ‘Hey Joseph! How are you? Let’s get together!’ – That was him. He made the ordinary, everyday moments, special.”
Whether training future cantors or working with bar and bat mitzvah students, Cohn found his role as teacher most meaningful.
“I adore my students,” he told the Ledger back in 2019. “I love watching them grow and watching them gain confidence in preparing for their services. And in most cases, gaining an increased connection to their Jewish heritage.”
He also taught in a pre-cantorial program at the University of Hartford’s Hartt School of Music.
Cantor Laura Breznick, now hazzan of Temple Sholom in New Milford, Connecticut, was one of his students.
“Hazzan Cohn was a true mensch who was eager to help educate the next generation,” said Breznick. “I learned so much from him, from chazanut to contemporary Jewish music, he knew it all. Having the opportunity to sing with him once again in November 2019 was one of the highlights of my young career. Thank you, Hazzan, for the wisdom and the music.”
Cohn was also active in the Cantors Assembly, the Conservative movement’s professional association of hazzanim.
“He was a mentor, mensch and treasure of a cantorial colleague,” noted Cantor Deborah Katchko Gray of Congregation Shir Shalom in Ridgefield, Connecticut. My heart goes out to his beloved family and community. May his name always be a blessing and an inspiration.”
In addition to his wife, children and mother, Cantor Cohn is survived by his brother, Mark Cohn and his wife Susan; his mother-in-law Phyllis Polebaum; his brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law, Elliot Polebaum, Gilda Brancato, Mark Polebaum, and Diane Buhl;, and several nieces and nephews.