Take a combination of warmth and kindness, expertise in music and Jewish liturgy, a lot of patience, and a core belief that every youngster who enters Jewish adulthood should be able to take the bima with confidence and mastery, and you’ve got Chazzan Marcel Cohen.
Chazzan Cohen marries his 20 years of experience with his gentle personality to teach his students — whether they have learning issues or emotional issues, a combination, or other challenges. And, he has been taking his students to a place of success that goes beyond the Big Day.
That success that he helps foster becomes a springboard for their future growth and confidence.
“Nothing succeeds like success,” he said. “You can give all the flattery, compliments and praise, but when a student has true accomplishment, that is most potent,” said Chazzan Cohen, who is the director of program development at Yedei Chesed, Inc., a Rockland-county based nonprofit that services the special needs community from birth to the elderly.
“That is the edifice of true confidence.”
He stresses how important it is to mark the milestone with this accomplishment and the impact that it has upon a young person.
“It is important to have a bar mitzvah,” Chazzan Cohen said. “By setting a student up for success, even if they have academic struggles, it is a great motivator and springboard for the future. When this is achieved, it impacts the rest of his life. The student is not just a spectator, but an active participant. It’s transformative.”
Through a detailed system that Chazzan Cohen has developed for his students, he is able to teach the leining (the reading of the Torah portion with its appropriate cantillation) through a visual system that uses color codes to teach the music and proper intonations.
“The student does not need to be able to read formal music notations, nor do they need to have a working memory,” said Chazzan Cohen. “Through this system, they begin to remember what each trope sequence should sound like.”
This visual sequencing – which is tailored to each student — was an especially helpful teaching tool for students now who were taking lessons over Zoom.
One father of a bar mitzvah boy called Chazzan Cohen’s system “brilliant. It was very detailed. Marcel put tremendous effort into creating it.
“One of the things that Marcel is so great at doing, is he was able to take the edge off the process and make the learning purely positive and not demanding,” said the father whose son has learning and anxiety issues. “This wasn’t overbearing. It was all sunshine.” said the father.
Chazzan Cohen, who lives in Teaneck, hails from Toronto. He holds a bachelor’s degree in arts administration from the University of Toronto and a special education certification through York University and the Mercaz L’Morim. He was the program director of Toronto’s Kadima Center, which offers Jewish education programs for special needs adults, teaching them Torah, spirituality and about the Jewish holidays. The son of actress Juliette Jacobs, Chazzan Cohen also studied drama, is an accomplished vocalist and was a cantor at Toronto’s Lodzer Synagogue. He taught special education in Jewish day schools in Ontario.
But perhaps his greatest education came through his late brother, Aaron, who had Down syndrome. Aaron, who died in 2010, never learned how to read because education in those days was not as progressive for the special needs community. The children would play games and take walks, but they were not taught.
When Aaron was 32 years old, Chazzan Cohen asked him if he wanted to learn how to read. His brother had given up on the idea, but Chazzan Cohen encouraged him to use his love of movies and 1950s television shows, like Superman, and comic books to begin learning words.
The technique worked. He became so excited that Aaron would ask his brother, for instance, how to spell the name Spider-man.
Through his brotherly love and his patient and kind personality, Chazzan Cohen helped Aaron master a written vocabulary of more than 10,000 words. Aaron even gained enough confidence to submit screenplays to Steven Spielberg, ABC television and his Marvel Comics. Learning how to read and write a gift that brother gave brother. At the end of his life, Aaron who was unable to speak, was able to write and share his love for his family.
Aaron continues to inspire Chazzan Cohen, who wants to help students, especially those with special needs achieve success, even beyond what they think they can achieve.
Looks like that is happening.
All too often, said the father of the bar mitzvah boy, students are so focused on getting everything “perfect” that when they make a mistake — and mistakes are inevitable — they feel like they failed. They come to the learning process with so much self-induced pressure.
“What Marcel puts the emphasis on is everything the student does right,” the father said. “That is his framework.”
Said the bar mitzvah boy’s mother, “Marcel used positive reinforcement. He sets them up for success and finds ways to do it. Success was the name of the game.”
So, what happened with their son after his bar mitzvah?
“He felt great,” said his mother. “He felt like he won the lottery. He also thought it was fun. He may have started off anxious, but that dissolved because Marcel was there, right at his side.”
To reach Chazzan Marcel Cohen, 551-202-5882, firstname.lastname@example.org.