Left to right: Cantor Josh Breitzer, Cantor Shani Cohen, Rabbi Kylynn Cohen, Prof. Joyce Rosenzweig and Cantor Lianna Mendelson at Shani Cohen’s installation as cantor at Temple Sholom the weekend of Oct. 28-29. (photo from facebook.com/templesholom.ca)
Temple Sholom officially installed Cantor Shani Cohen, the first ordained cantor to serve the congregation, on the Oct. 28-29 Shabbat weekend, with services and music throughout to mark the occasion.
Always passionate about music and Judaism, Cohen found a path that combined her interests – and talents – while studying for a master’s of music in vocal performance and pedagogy at the University of Houston in the mid-2010s. There, she started working for Congregation Shma Koleinu.
“Rabbi Scott Hausman-Weiss saw something in me, and invited me to lead High Holy Day services with him. He knew that I would become a cantor before I did. Once I started leading services, I looked into becoming a cantor and what that would mean,” Cohen told the Independent. “What I discovered was that being a Reform cantor encompasses so many different skills: you get to lead the congregation in prayer, teach b’nai mitzvah, introduce new music, and lead lifecycles for the community.”
Following her studies in Houston, Cohen enrolled at Hebrew Union College and embarked on a five-year cantorial program, which comprised a first year of study in Jerusalem, followed by four years in New York. “I got to work with the most incredible, groundbreaking cantors and rabbis of our generation, and enter into a diverse community of Jewish clergy around the world,” she said. “The training for cantors centres on Jewish music and liturgy, but many of our courses are in conjunction with the rabbinic students, including pastoral care, Bible, Jewish history and philosophy, and lifecycles.”
As a student, she presented recitals every year on different topics, such as Shabbat, High Holy Days, and Jewish composers. In her final year, she wrote a thesis and presented a recital on the same topic – her research delved into the collaboration between rabbis and cantors, looking into the history of these roles and the way clergy teams function in Reform congregations today.
Cohen was influenced by the cantors of the early to mid-20th century, which is often referred to as the cantorial “golden age.” These cantors included such names as Yossele Rosenblatt, Moshe Koussevitzky, Leibele Waldman and Moishe Oysher.
“I love how they brought their full voices to every piece, whether they were leading services or performing on the concert stage. I am also greatly inspired by the incredible teachers that I had at the Hebrew Union College Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music (DFSSM), including Chazzan Israel Goldstein, z”l, who I got to work with as my coach my second year.”
Two of Cohen’s mentors, Prof. Joyce Rosenzweig and Cantor Josh Breitzer, were in attendance at her October installation, offering both words and music. Cohen worked with Breitzer as an intern at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, where she got “to see firsthand his ability to weave together traditional and contemporary musical styles in an authentic, cantorial way.”
She said, “I too strive to bring the breadth and depth of Jewish music into my cantorial work, showing our community that both new and old music has a place in our synagogues. I think this is what cantors are called to do in order for us to keep this art form alive.”
Cohen delights in both the variety of her job and its interpersonal nature, noting that no two days are alike. “I could go from teaching students and leading prayer with our religious school one day, to officiating a wedding or going to visit one of our home-bound congregants the next,” she said. “Each facet of my work feels meaningful, especially being there for people when they are feeling vulnerable: when someone loses a loved one, gets bad news, or even the excitement and anxiety of preparing for their child’s b’nai mitzvah.”
A native of the Bay Area, Cohen attended the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash., where she studied music and psychology. “I love being close to the water and, when the sun comes out, you appreciate it so much more because so much of the year is dark and rainy,” she said. “It was definitely a big contrast from where I grew up, but I felt a strong connection to this part of the continent when I was an undergraduate student, and am so grateful to be able to live here now.”
Cohen and her wife Rabbi Kylynn Cohen moved here with their black Lab mix, Trouble.
“The addition of Cantor Cohen to Temple Sholom’s clergy team is a milestone for our growing congregation, having grown from 600 households in 2013 to nearly 950 households just nine years later,” said Rabbi Dan Moskovitz, senior rabbi at Temple Sholom. “Cantor Cohen adds a depth of pastoral skills and Jewish knowledge to her outstanding musical and cantorial abilities.
“She stands upon the shoulders of lay cantorial soloists Arthur Guttman and Naomi Taussig, who together set the tone and tenor for generations of Vancouver Jewish families,” he said.
“It is an honour and a privilege to be part of the Temple Sholom clergy team,” said Cohen, who brings the team to three, joining Moskovitz and Rabbi Carey Brown. “And I am grateful to get to do this work every day.”
Sam Margolis has written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.