Cantor Richard Cohn became Director of the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music in July of 2015, following thirty-four years of service to Reform communities. He was most recently Cantor of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, Texas, where he was influential in helping to integrate contemporary and traditional aspects of congregational life, while sustaining a diverse and vibrant musical culture. He enjoyed a lengthy tenure at North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe, Illinois, where his areas of specialization included programming for teens and for adult learning. He also served Oak Park Temple–B’nai Abraham Zion in suburban Chicago, where he developed personalized approaches to b’nai mitzvah studies. He has been vibrantly involved in worship transformation, and he has had an innovative impact on Jewish choral music as a conductor, arranger and composer.
Cantor Cohn has often been featured as the soloist in Ernest Bloch’s Avodath Hakodesh (“Sacred Service”), including performances in Israel with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, at Chicago’s Grant Park Concerts and at the Berkshire Choral Festival. While living in the Chicago area, he appeared as a soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under such conductors as Claudio Abbado, Daniel Barenboim, James Levine and Sir Georg Solti. He was the founding conductor of Kol Zimrah, the Jewish Community Singers of Greater Chicago, which he led for nine seasons, and he has been a frequent principal conductor at the North American Jewish Choral Festival. He has also conducted HaZamir: The International Jewish High School Choir, in concert at Lincoln Center. He has served as Hebrew language coach for the Chicago Symphony Chorus, the Dallas Symphony Chorus and the Grant Park Symphony Chorus.
Cantor Cohn was invested as a Cantor by HUC-JIR (1992), received the Master of Music degree in Vocal Performance and Literature at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (1979) and received the Bachelor of Music Degree in Vocal Performance, summa cum laude, from Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge (1976). From 2001 to 2007, Cantor Cohn was president of the American Conference of Cantors (ACC), the professional organization of the Reform cantorate. He was co-leader of the Shabbat morning service at the Biennial Convention of the Union of Reform Judaism (URJ) in 1997, and he led the URJ Biennial Choir in 2003. He was an active member of the URJ Board and of the URJ Commission on Music, Worship and Religious Living. He has appeared as soloist and conductor in Jewish music programming throughout the United States and abroad, including the concert to celebrate the opening of the cantorial program at the Abraham Geiger College in Berlin, and in a special concert presented by the ACC in Rome under the auspices of the Vatican. As a collaborating partner of Cantor Rosalie Boxt, he helped establish the original cohort of Kesher Shir, a creative learning intensive for cantors and singer-songwriters in spiritual and artistic dialogue. He has also been a summer camp faculty member at the URJ’s Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin.
Cantor Cohn is involved in the work of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality (IJS), which seeks to cultivate practices of contemplative Judaism as portals to spiritual growth. Having participated in the first cantorial cohort of the Institute, he is now an IJS Fellow, as well as a faculty member of its Clergy Leadership Program. He was a member of the IJS Prayer Project Working Group, and he has taken particular interest in the integration of spiritual practice with areas of prayer, music and education.
Having served as a mentor to DFSSM cantorial students and ordinees, Cantor Cohn possesses deep insight into the professional growth of emerging cantorial clergy. Rabbi Shirley Idelson, Ph.D., Dean of the New York campus of HUC-JIR, states that “Cantor Cohn will guide our students in their development as clergy adept at inspiring others in worship, skilled in offering pastoral care, proficient in educating learners of all ages, and gifted in applying their creativity to the composition of new music to enrich contemporary prayer.” Cantor Cohn says, “I feel blessed to be joining the College-Institute community at this moment of great promise for the future of the cantorate. The Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music will continue to provide superior cantorial education, while cultivating vibrant relationships throughout the world of contemporary Jewish music. We will inspire, innovate and collaborate, as we seek to continuously revitalize the spiritual life of our people.”