He was Temple Beth Hillel’s accidental cantor. Recruited from the synagogue’s pews 28 years ago because of his exceptional singing voice, Howard Cohen went on to become, as one person called him, “the heart and soul of the congregation.”
Cohen died June 26 of a sudden heart attack. He was 61.
Though not officially invested as a Reform cantor, Cohen fulfilled all the duties of the job and more. He chanted at Shabbat and High Holy Day services, trained b’nai mitzvah students, spearheaded social action projects and pitched in however he could.
“Howard was a fierce and unswerving advocate for this congregation, for Israel and for the Jewish people,” Beth Hillel member David Brown said in his eulogy at the June 28 funeral. “He advocated for children, for the poor and downtrodden, here and abroad, and all who were in need.”
Added Beth Hillel Rabbi Dean Kertesz, “He had the most continuity of anybody, longer here than any one rabbi. He knew every congregant, he was the prayer leader, he was the voice of the synagogue.”
A native of Cleveland, Cohen grew up in the Conservative movement, steeped in Yiddishkeit. He informally studied Jewish liturgical music with local cantors, and later sang with the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra Chorus and the Ohio University Singers.
He went on to earn degrees in French and political science from Ohio University, a master’s in counseling from Kent State University and a doctorate in education from U.C. Berkeley. Cohen later taught high school French and childhood development at a community college, and he spent time in Japan as a Fulbright scholar.
But his Jewish connections closer to his East Bay home resonate most with his Beth Hillel friends and colleagues.
Rabbi Judy Shanks, now at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, was the rabbi at Beth Hillel in the 1980s when she heard Cohen singing from his seat one Shabbat evening.
“Suddenly I heard a powerful, beautiful baritone filling the room,” she recalled. “No sooner had my concluding ‘Shabbat Shalom’ left my lips than the owner of that voice stepped up to greet me: ‘I’m Howard Cohen, nice to meet you.’ I said, ‘I hope you live nearby and want to help me lead services.’ Howard got a mischievous grin on his face. ‘I was hoping you would say something like that. I guess that was my audition. I would love to.’ ”
Cohen took on the role of cantor, though his colleagues say he also had a gift for pastoral counseling. The mitzvot of visiting the sick and comforting mourners were among his specialties.
Brown recalled how Cohen sat by the bedside of his dying grandmother, singing Yiddish songs and telling her “not to be afraid. Despite being in a deep coma, we saw her face relax and knew that she heard and was comforted by his songs.”
Cohen not only ran the synagogue’s religious school for a time, he also worked with Food For Thought, Beth Hillel’s social action program to combat hunger, as well as with GRIP, the Greater Richmond Interfaith Program, which runs food pantries, rape crisis centers and homeless shelters in Contra Costa County.
Busy as he was, Cohen made time for his son, Josh, and wife, Mary, whom he met when both were teachers in Cleveland. The couple more recently became grandparents when their granddaughter, Jaleena, was born.
But Cohen never came close to retiring from the job he loved. He was at Temple Beth Hillel for Shabbat services the Friday before he died.
“He would always turn to me at the end of the service and thank me,” Kertesz remembered. “It was the sweetest gesture. He felt it was a privilege to lead the congregation in prayer. He knew it every single time he led the community, and he never mailed it in, ever.”
Howard Cohen is survived by wife Mary Levak-Cohen of Walnut Creek, brother Dan Cohen, sister Nina Cohen, son Josh Cohen and a granddaughter. Donations can be sent to the Howard Cohen Memorial Fund, c/o Temple Beth Hillel, 801 Park Central St., Richmond, CA 94803.