Simon Cohen 88 298.
(photo credit: Courtesy photo)
Simon Cohen, 35, who came on aliya in 1995, nearly left five years ago. "I was ready to go back to England due to the disillusionment I felt about the political and spiritual direction Israel was taking at the time. After discussing the matter with my close friend, Rabbi Shalom Srebernik, he explained to me in depth the spiritual and practical importance of living in the Land of Israel and persuaded me to stay."
Through an unlikely professional combination of hi-tech and hazanut, and thanks to the advice he received, Cohen has built what he now says is "a wonderful life" for himself and his family.
Cohen's parents grew up in what were then traditionally Jewish areas of north London - his mother in Stamford Hill and his father in Dalston. Music and singing were always an integral part of Cohen's life. "My maternal grandfather, Rabbi Eliezer Spector, was the rabbi and hazan [cantor] in Walford Road shul in Stoke Newington and he had a tremendous influence on me," says Cohen. "He was a charismatic character who connected with everyone he met and always had a twinkle in his eye." Cohen's parents both sang in the Zemel Choir, a well-known Anglo-Jewish choir.
The second of four children, Cohen was born in 1971 and grew up in the Hampstead Garden Suburb area of north London. "My parents divorced when I was 10, which made me very independent and resourceful from a young age."
Cohen attended Menorah primary school and Hasmonean Grammar (high) School for Boys. He went on to Manchester University, where he studied business management and economics. "I already had my own company in the shmatta business and I used to commute from Manchester to London. I am afraid there was a lot more business than studying going on."
Today his older brother is a hazan and opera singer in New York, and his younger twin siblings live in Jerusalem and London.
While at university, Cohen visited Israel regularly for long weekends so that he could spend time with friends and family. "I was a great Zionist in those days. I would get very emotional at the Kotel and I always tried to fit in a yeshiva visit. Aliya was already on my mind."
Cohen met his future wife, Nechama, in London in April 1994. "Within a week I knew that I wanted to marry her, and I think she felt the same about me - but she only admitted to it after two weeks." Nechama was born in London. Her family made aliya when she was a baby and she grew up with her seven siblings in Jerusalem. In 1994 she was on a three-month trip to London.
"We were both distraught when the time came for her to leave," recalls Cohen. "Israel was now calling me from every angle. Within four weeks I was at Ben-Gurion with 12 suitcases."
"I initially stayed with family in Caesarea, commuting for four hours daily to work in an import and export business in Bnei Brak. What an introduction to Israeli driving! Nechama and I were married in February 1995 in the Great Synagogue, Jerusalem. We had a combination English/Israeli wedding: half the hall sat according to the table plan, the other half didn't notice it!" The couple made their first home in Jerusalem's Ramot neighborhood.
In 1997 the Cohens moved to Petah Tikva to be closer to where Nechama was studying law. Today she is working in her field. The Cohens have three children: Yonatan, Michal and Tamar. "As the children grew, Nechama and I began looking for a religious school that had a warm, open environment; a place that was upwardly spiritual. We found it in Horev Torani elementary school in Ra'anana. In 2004 we moved there and we're very happy; it's a wonderful city."
ROUTINE AND WORK
After his inspirational discussion with Rabbi Srebernik five years ago, Cohen branched out in two very different professional directions. With partner Dror Saddan, he set up Kedem BSD Technologies, a company that develops Web applications, specializing in tourism, streaming media and accountancy programs. Hi-tech is a stressful working environment, so as a form of relaxation he decided to study hazanut under the tutelage of Naftali Herstik, chief cantor of Jerusalem's Great Synagogue, and composer Raymond Goldstein.
"Initially I just wanted to sing and not to perform, but I was told by my tutors that I had a great talent that I should use. Naftali Herstik encouraged me and helped to secure my first solo engagement at Migdal David."
Since then Cohen has been invited to sing at numerous venues, including New York, Miami, Budapest, London and Manchester. He leads services and performs in concerts on an ongoing basis here and in the UK at Singers Hill Synagogue in Birmingham. Cohen has recently released a CD of his best concert performances.
He sees a similarity between his roles in hi-tech and hazanut. "A hazan's role is to lead the community in prayer. In order to enhance the service, a hazan must be in tune with his congregation's needs, thereby fulfilling his spiritual purpose. A hazan who drags out the service is damaging the whole concept of hazanut and is not fulfilling his responsibility. In hi-tech, in order to generate synergy you must have a complete understanding of your clients' needs so that you can create exactly what they are looking for."
Cohen exercises three times a week at a local gym. He learns every morning with a study partner and enjoys learning Gemara with his nine-year-old son Yonatan.
"A tremendous mix," says Cohen. "Our friends are Israelis and English-speaking immigrants, religious and non-religious. Something I have taken from my grandfather is accepting and respecting people regardless of their religious views."
"I was brought up in a religious environment, and I have become more Orthodox since coming to Israel. My job exposes me to many secular people and I hope that I manage to make a positive impression and religiously inspire the people I meet. My hazanut gives me this opportunity as well. Many secular people who would not normally come to synagogue attend concerts at which I perform and they tell me they are spiritually uplifted. Music has no barriers, as much of it comes from the heart and therefore penetrates the heart without having to go via the prejudices of the mind."
Cohen feels neither Israeli nor British. "I suppose I'm a combination of them both. I still long for the tranquility of Hampstead Heath and the taste of a Blooms' [a famous London kosher restaurant] salt beef sandwich that awaits me each time I visit London, and yet I feel that Israel is very much home to me and my family."
"I speak Hebrew fluently. I didn't go to ulpan; right from the beginning I learned by jumping in at the deep end. Sometimes this meant making embarrassing mistakes, such as when I confused the Hebrew word for glasses and trousers when commenting to our architect that I did not recognize her without her glasses. As you can imagine, this brought a strange look to her face! At home Nechama and I speak to one another and the kids in Hebrew and English, and sometimes Hebrish."
"In the future I hope to develop my hi-tech business and, through my work as a hazan, to continue to inspire communities and audiences throughout the world."
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