It’s been 15 years since Sara Cohen retired from her position as educational director at Har Zion Temple, but her love of teaching and Judaism keeps the 90-year-old educator coming back.
Once a week, she leads an adult tefillah class, where she and her students delve into Jewish prayer — the meaning behind the words, who wrote them and why.
“I just love teaching,” said Cohen, who has lived in the same Wynnewood home for decades. “The mitzvah, the commandment, is to learn, but it’s also to learn and to teach.”
Cohen was born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her zayde taught her to love Judaism, she said. He was shomer Shabbat and would often spend Shabbat with her family. She remembers walking with him to shul.
Her parents were not particularly religious, and, she said, they ended up finding Judaism through her.
Cohen wanted to attend Hebrew school, but her mother felt like Sunday school was enough for a girl. Her father agreed to it, and she started a more serious Jewish education later than her peers at 10 years old. She finished when she was in high school and did extra learning in the summer so she could catch up for Hebrew high school.
“Jewish education was education as it should be,” Cohen said. “There was a lot of learning, serious learning. I believe that our children should really learn and know our traditions, and therefore, they would appreciate it, which they did.”
Her father was first violist in the CBS Symphony Orchestra. One day while at the recording studio, he met a young serviceman named Irving Cohen who was in the army band. Her father told Cohen to say hello to his wife, who worked as a senior hostess at the USO Center Fort Hamilton, where Irving Cohen was based.
Sara Cohen ended up meeting Irving through her parents. She was 16 years old, and he was 20. They married a few years later when his military service ended.
She went to Brooklyn College, where she studied Hebrew and Hebrew education. She also attended seminary school.
“I hit it from two angles because I didn’t have it at home,” Cohen said, “and I was up against a lot of kids that went to yeshiva and day school, and I didn’t go to that. My parents just didn’t have the money or the desire to send me to a day school. I did it all in the afternoon school, and that’s why I was so passionate about it, because it can be done and it should be done.”
Irving Cohen was also a teacher, in the field of music. He had a Ph.D. in music from New York University and spent some time teaching at Yeshiva University.
After 20 years of married life in Brooklyn, Irving Cohen got a job as a professor of music history at West Chester University, which brought the couple to Philadelphia in 1970.
They bought a house in Wynnewood, and Sara Cohen started teaching at Solomon Schechter Day School and eventually became a principal.
In 1978, Har Zion’s Rabbi Gerald Wolpe called and invited her to come serve as educational director at Har Zion. She stayed for 25 years.
“We had the numbers,” Cohen said, in reference to how the religious school had more than 450 students in the afternoon program at one point, in addition to a preschool. “We had a top school. The people who came to us believed in public school for their secular education, and they wanted their Hebrew school religious training for their children to be [as] good as the secular schools, and we made it that way.”
One thing that solidified the school’s status was her decision to get the school accreditated by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s (USCJ) department of education, an uncommon move at the time.
She also became part of a national commission on Jewish education, and she headed to New York a few times a year to advocate. She was also on the publications committee of USCJ.
“I love children and I love my Judaism and I just put it together,” Cohen said. “I was very lucky. I had a wonderful staff.”
Some of the staff she brought on still work at Har Zion.
One is Norman Einhorn, director of member engagement. She hired him 32 years ago to work as a teacher soon after he graduated college. Einhorn said the relationships he has, such as with Cohen, have kept him at Har Zion.
“She’s served as a grandmother to my children and a mother to me,” Einhorn said. “She’s incredible. She’s the Energizer Bunny of Har Zion.”
In 1989, Irving Cohen became ill and died. West Chester still holds an annual concert in his memory.
“We had a wonderful marriage,” Sara Cohen said. “Unfortunately, it wasn’t long enough.”
In 2003, Cohen retired. She started working at Harcum and Rosemont colleges, where she taught the Holocaust and women in the Old Testament.
Health issues put her on pause for a while, and when she recovered, she taught at Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El and Adath Israel. She also decided to return to teaching at Har Zion.
Sometimes, she finds herself teaching the same students she knew as children, and she sees them coming to Har Zion with their own children.
“My greatest pleasure today is going to Har Zion as a congregant, having retired from there, and seeing former graduates from our school … come back with their children who are active with their youth groups and their Hebrew schools today,” Cohen said. “[I’m] sort of the grandmother of all of them. It’s a good feeling.”
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