Cantor Richard Cohn Appointed Director of the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Cantor Richard Cohn

Rabbi Shirley Idelson, Ph.D., Dean of the New York campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), has announced the appointment of Cantor Richard Cohn as the new Director of the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music (DFSSM), effective July 1, 2015.  Cantor Cohn will succeed Cantor Bruce Ruben, Ph.D., who has led the DFSSM since 2006.

“Cantor Cohn brings expertise and a distinguished record of innovation to his leadership of our seminary’s program preparing cantors for the Reform Movement and the larger Jewish world,” states Rabbi Idelson. “This world-class program, the first and most respected cantorial school established in North America, engages students in Judaism’s unique musical heritage, the beauty of the cantorial tradition, and contemporary expressions of Jewish prayer and spirituality. 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 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). As President of the American Conference of Cantors (ACC) from 2001-2007, he led the ACC’s organizational transition, and he has served as both vocal soloist and conductor in many ACC concert programs. He was a member of the Board of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) and served on the URJ’s Commission on Worship, Music and Religious Living.  He was the co-officiant of the URJ Biennial Shabbat Morning Service in Dallas (1997) and conductor of the URJ Biennial Choir in Minneapolis (2003), and 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 hevruta and artistic dialogue). He has also been a summer camp faculty member at the Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute in Wisconsin. He has conducted major ensembles at the North American Jewish Choral Festival and led HaZamir: The International Jewish High School Choir, Dallas, and the full HaZamir Choir at Lincoln Center. He was also the founder and conductor of Kol Zimrah: The Jewish Community Singers of Greater Chicago, and has served as a vocal soloist with the Chicago, Jerusalem, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Indianapolis, and Grant Park Symphonies, among others.

Cantor Cohn brings to the DFSSM several areas of specialization: the integration of contemporary musical repertoire and congregational worship transformation; the composing and arranging of musical settings for cantors, choirs, instruments, and congregation; the designing of musical prayer sequences of contrasting styles into coherent liturgical units; and, the planning and implementation of worship created by collaborative clergy relationships.

With the growth of the role of the cantor today to encompass congregational education, Cantor Cohn will draw upon his experiences as the Cantor of major synagogues including Temple Emanu-El of Dallas, Texas, North Shore Congregation Israel in Glencoe, Illinois, and Oak Park Temple-B’nai Abraham Zion, Oak Park, Illinois, sharing his expertise in text-based experiential learning, Jewish spirituality and Jewish music for adults, b’nai mitzvah teens, and families. 

Cantor Cohn participated in the first cohort of the Cantorial Leadership Program of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality (IJS), and currently serves on the faculty of the IJS Clergy Leadership Programs, and as a member of the Prayer Project Working Group. Having served as a mentor to DFSSM cantorial students and ordinees over the years, Cantor Cohn possesses deep insight into the professional growth of emerging cantorial clergy. His leadership in the development of supplemental music and music education programming at Temple Emanu-El will serve as a role model for HUC-JIR’s students.

“I feel blessed to be joining the College-Institute community at this moment of great promise for the future of the cantorate,” Cantor Cohn said.  “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.”

THE DEBBIE FRIEDMAN SCHOOL OF SACRED MUSIC is the only Reform Jewish cantorial school in North America and the nation’s first institution educating cantors. The DFSSM is dedicated to preparing cantors for the Reform Movement and preserving, enhancing, and creating Jewish music. Since its founding as the School of Sacred Music in 1948, at a time when the Holocaust had nearly severed the continuity of the Jewish people’s cultural heritage, the DFSSM has prepared 490 cantors to serve communities throughout North America, Israel, and around the world. Among these alumni are 225 women cantors who have graduated from the cantorial program since 1975, when HUC-JIR invested the first woman cantor in history. In 2011, the school was named in memory of Debbie Friedman to honor a beloved teacher and her singular contributions to religious worship, spiritual renewal, and the Jewish people.

The rigorous five-year cantorial program, leading to the degree of Master of Sacred Music and ordination as Cantor, includes a first year of study at HUC-JIR’s Jerusalem campus, followed by four years in New York. The curriculum encompasses intensive Judaic, Hebrew, music, musicology, and liturgy studies, vocal and professional development, internships, pastoral care and counseling, fieldwork, and performance. The pluralistic faculty, representing many different streams of Judaism, offers an integrated approach to liturgical music ranging from the traditional to the contemporary. The DFSSM also offers the Cantorial Certification Program, designed for Reform congregations’ long-term soloists seeking to expand their knowledge and refine their skills through several years of part-time coursework leading to Certification from the DFSSM and membership in the ACC.

Rabbi Idelson chaired the Search Committee, and offers thanks to its members: Merri Lovinger Arian, Cantor Chanin Becker, Rabbi Daniel Freelander, Donny Friend, Dr. Mark Kligman, Vladimir Lapin, Cantor Barbara Ostfeld, Joyce Rosenzweig, Cantor Benjie Ellen Schiller, and Rabbi Nancy Weiner.  She also expresses gratitude to the experts in the field who shared with the Search Committee their wisdom regarding the future of the cantorate and cantorial training. They included Rabbi Aaron Panken, Ph.D., President, as well as Cantor Israel Goldstein, Dr. Lawrence Hoffman, Rabbi Richard Jacobs, Matthew Lazar, and Rabbi Margaret Wenig.

Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates men and women for service to North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding.