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HOMETOWN: Cherry Hill

FAMILY: Wife Robin, daughters Megan and Brittany, granddaughter Remy


FAVORITE NIGHT OUT: Dinner and a Broadway show



Like many a working musician, Jay Cohen stumbled into the teaching profession as a way to make ends meet. But from his first day subbing in a special-needs classroom, the classically trained pianist knew he had discovered his second calling.

“I realized right away I could reach kids and impact their lives through music,” said Cohen, 66, who, as chief pianist for the Valley Forge Music Fair, accompanied greats such as Sammy Davis Jr. and Carole Channing in the early 1970s.

With teaching as the day job, Cohen continued to tickle the ivories. The Jay Cohen and Friends Orchestra was, in fact, a leading South Jersey wedding band for many years and Cohen still plays for small, private parties. And there has always been time to volunteer his musical talents to the Katz JCC and Jewish Family and Children’s Service (he recently played piano at the ACHaD art gallery reception), and to tirelessly raise funds and help out with the Golden Slipper Club and Charities, paying back the Philadelphia-based philanthropic organization for providing the scholarship that enabled him to go to college.

But after 46 years teaching special education in both Philadelphia and Cherry Hill with heavy involvement in school music programs, Cohen “retired” into a new job that plays to his strengths and passions anew. As the high school teacher for the Transitions Program at the Regional Enrichment & Learning (REAL) Center in Cherry Hill, he started working in November with teens whose severe anxieties prevent them from attending their regular district schools.

The teacher of all subjects in the high school, Cohen is charged with creating a loving, nurturing and relaxed atmosphere while setting high goals for his eager students. The ultimate goal is to help these teens build enough confidence and gain strategies to transition back into regular classroom settings. Naturally, he has brought music into the mix.

“I love the kids and the administration has been the most supportive I’ve worked for,” said Cohen. “Since I came in, they’ve respected everything I’ve said. They didn’t have a biology lab, so they added it. They didn’t have a music program, so I started it. We play drums two days a week now for an hour and a half.”

It is a job that Cohen, who dual majored in pre-med at LaSalle University and piano at the Curtis Institute of Music, would not have imagined would be in his path in his youth. LaSalle’s first—and possibly only—Jewish valedictorian, Cohen was accepted early decision into Jefferson University’s medical school. However, family issues prevented him from going.

While admittedly the prospect of a steady paycheck was the initial draw of teaching, Cohen found teaching was such a powerful experience that he put aside dreams of medical school. He had put in 28 years at Simon Gratz High School in gritty North Philadelphia when it was time to move on. A shocking incident—eye-witnessing the murder of a student in his classroom—precipitated the change.

“I really loved being in the inner city, but there had been many incidents over the years,” he said.

Already living in Cherry Hill, he next took a job as an inclusion teacher at East. In his 15 years there, he taught biology, English and history for special-needs students and was involved in virtually every musical production, including playing in the pit and conducting the orchestra for a production of “The Sound of Music” in which his daughter Brittany starred as Maria. He also served 12 years as assistant director of the school’s award winning marching band.

While contemplating retirement, Cohen decided he would not leave his job until he was sure of his next move. Although he reapplied to medical school (and was rejected this time for having taken his needed classes too long ago), the REAL Center was a case of the right job finding him at the right time. Susan Goldman, assistant director at the REAL Center, said that in the short time that Cohen has been there, he has made a huge mark.

“We all feel a close connection to him already,” said Goldman. “He’s like a friend, father, brother and role model.”

Originally published by Jewish Community Voice here
Reposted with permission