To mark Cantor Janece Cohen’s 25 years of service as a congregational cantor, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is granting her a Doctorate of Sacred Music, Honoris Causa. On Saturday, May 9, Congregation Or Chadash will honor Cohen for this achievement with a gala dinner.
Cohen has been with Or Chadash for the past 15 years, and served at synagogues in California, Australia and Hong Kong after receiving her master’s degree and ordination from HUC-JIR’S Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music in 1990. But her path to the pulpit started long before that.
“I knew from the time I was 5 that I wanted to be a cantor,” Cohen told the AJP.
She was initially inspired by her father, Dr. Seneca Erman, who led services at a small shul her parents started in Tucson. When that synagogue folded, the family joined Congregation Anshei Israel.
“I loved Cantor [Maurice] Falkow,” Cohen said. “My family used to sit in the back row and harmonize with him. We were known as the Erman Tabernacle Choir.”
In elementary school, Cohen started a Hebrew chorus that met during lunch. “I taught them ‘Hinei Matov’ and ‘David Melech Yisrael.’ The principal asked us to sing at an assembly and I conducted them.” As a student at Joseph W. Magee Junior High, she initiated a student-led girls’ ensemble.
While studying for her bat mitzvah, Cohen taught herself the Haftarah trope and began to understand that there were patterns to the melodies. She was asked to chant Haftarah for the High Holiday youth services, but the honor of being called to recite the Torah blessing was given to her brother, since women and girls were not yet permitted to bless or read from the Torah at Anshei Israel. She realized that if she wanted to pursue cantillation, she would need to look beyond Conservative Judaism.
In her teens, Cohen served as a song leader at the Tucson Jewish Community Center summer camp, Anshei Israel and other venues.
“I have rich memories of her leading song and dance at JCC summer camp,” says Jon Ben-Asher, Tucson Hebrew Academy head of school. “She was one of my first inspirations, transmitting a love of music, singing and our cultural heritage. Now I have the privilege of seeing her give those same gifts to today’s kids here on the THA campus.”
Cohen completed a Bachelor of Music Education degree at the University of Arizona and then began commuting to HUC-JIR in Los Angeles. She took classes in the rabbinic track because the campus had no cantorial program, returning to Tucson on the weekends to serve as cantorial soloist at Temple Emanu-El. She ended up leading Temple Beth El in San Pedro, Calif., for five years before moving to New York to complete her ordination at HUC-JIR’s cantorial school.
After officiating at synagogues in the San Francisco area, Sydney and Hong Kong, Cohen returned to Tucson in 1999. Rabbi Thomas Louchheim heard she was moving back and asked her to help lead High Holiday services. “Tom is the most gracious rabbi to share a bimah with. We are a team. He never tells me what to sing. He leaves the choreography, music and liturgy up to me,” Cohen says.
“Cantor Cohen’s very presence at Or Chadash is an expression of a passion for people and dedication to Judaism,” Louchheim says. “When she leads our congregation she does not stand alone expressing her connection to the divine. Rather, with her voice, she invites the congregation to be embraced within the moment. Her students, young and a little older than young, are encouraged to participate and learn and engage in the mysteries of faith and in our ancient Hebrew language, connecting heart and mind and soul.”
For Cohen, being a congregational cantor is much more than leading services and teaching music. “If you think of it in terms of old fashioned doctors who used to make house calls, it’s that kind of business. Rabbis and cantors can’t say ‘I’m busy’ when someone has a death or bad news. You have to be available when your congregation needs you,” she says.
Cohen’s influence stretches beyond her own congregation. In addition to teaching Judaic studies and Jewish music at THA, she directs the Kol Shirah community adult choir and the Tucson Jewish Youth Choir, both of which she started with the late Karla Ember, who was Congregation Chaverim’s cantorial soloist and Cohen’s best friend since high school. “Kids in the choir grow up knowing they can sing and it becomes a part of their lives,” she says. Several TJYC graduates have gone on to pursue careers in music.
“My biggest thrill is mentoring kids and adults,” Cohen says. “Giving them a chance to sing in front of people, to build their confidence, is a great joy to me.”
This includes teaching b’nai mitzvah students to lead the entire Saturday morning service, chant the full Torah reading and part of the Haftarah. “I love taking students from whatever level they’re at and helping them succeed at something that seems huge and daunting at first,” Cohen says.
Diana Friedman credits Cohen with preparing her daughter, Jenna, for her bat mitzvah. Jenna, who is on the autism spectrum, is one of many special needs students who have mastered the b’nai mitzvah requirements with Cohen’s help. “It was amazing to see the transformation. The process helped her become a young woman — exactly what you think it should or could be. She mastered the whole ceremony and had the confidence to get up in front of 120 people,” Friedman says.
Cohen acknowledges the legacy that she hopes to have built here. “There will come a day when I can’t sing, but I’ll have all of them to carry on.”
“Music of the Night,” a dinner with live music and dancing honoring Cohen and benefiting Or Chadash, will take place Saturday, May 9, at 6 p.m. at Skyline Country Club, 5200 E. St. Andrews Drive. Tickets are $100. For sponsorship information and to RSVP visit cantorcohen25.com or call 512-8500.
Nancy Ben-Asher Ozeri is a feature writer and editor living in Tucson. She can be reached at [email protected]