Tutor’s Motto Is ‘Every Child Can Have A Bar Or Bat Mitzvah’
One of the most iconic celebrations in Judaism is the bar or bat mitzvah, where a youngster takes on the responsibilities of adulthood and proclaims before an audience of family and friends that he or she is ready to become a functioning member of the greater community within the Jewish faith.
As a teacher, Marcel Cohen has a motto: “Every child can have a bar or bat mitzvah.” The friendly Toronto native has been helping young people, both those with special needs and the gifted, realize this goal of achieving one of the most important milestones in their lives. He launched his bar and bat mitzvah tutoring service more than 10 years ago, inclusively serving Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and unaffiliated families.
Cohen, 48, lives with his wife and young son in Oak Park. He has 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 served for the past nine years as program director of Toronto’s Kadima Centre, based at Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda Synagogue, which offers Jewish education programs for adults with exceptionalities, teaching Torah, spirituality and about the Jewish holidays.
The son of actress Juliette Jacobs (who was a hidden child in Belgium during the Holocaust), Cohen studied drama, is an accomplished vocalist and serves as cantor at Toronto’s Lodzer Synagogue. He continues studying chazzanut with several prominent Canadian cantors and feels by teaching he is channeling his performance skills into something kadosh (holy).
Cohen taught special education in Jewish day schools in Ontario; and it was his love for teaching, in addition to his love for his younger brother Aaron, who died in 2010, that served as his inspiration to work with the differently abled.
“My brother Aaron had Down syndrome, and had limited reading and writing skills,” Cohen said. “When he was 32, I asked him if he wanted to learn. He said, ‘Hopeless! It’ll never happen, my friend!’
“I learned in yeshivah that the Torah says: ‘Teach a child according to his way,’” Cohen continued. “That’s an integral part of how I approached teaching Aaron, by understanding if you teach to someone’s strength, training children to be their own teachers, they will flourish.
“I knew he loved movies, so I asked him if he could look up the 1950s cast of the Superman series. He did some searching and came to me asking how to spell ‘Reeves.’ I told him. Then he asked, ‘How do you spell George?’ So I got him a notebook to write down all his inquiries. By the end of his life, he had written and learned thousands of words. His writing ability grew to the point where he wrote comic books for Marvel Comics and even movie scripts that he sent to Steven Spielberg.”
Cohen explained his technique with learning-challenged individuals involves breaking down the service into manageable parts and offering encouragement at every stage.
“I use proven learning strategies along with patience and enthusiasm so my students will shine,” he said. “I want my instruction to be the beginning of success for the rest of their lives. I encourage them to have fun but to take this study seriously; and when they realize they can master Hebrew and Torah reading, it’s a wonderful achievement. These were kids who thought they’d never succeed, and when they do, it’s life-transforming for them.”
Those children who are gifted also present a unique set of challenges. “Some of the kids I’ve seen are smarter than their teachers,” he added, “but they’re still young and need to be encouraged, too — just on a different level. Many of them ask complex questions, and it is faith-affirming to show them Torah explanations can stand up to their inquiries.”
Cohen noted the most rewarding aspect of providing bar and bat mitzvah tutoring has been seeing a child whom everyone has given up on (including the child himself) gain confidence, dignity and a sense of accomplishment. “Each child is unique, and I always create tailor-made materials to ensure his or her success.”
Cohen said many parents have come to him to tell him how much his teaching has impacted their families. He has received moving testimonials from parents of children he’s instructed, including the following from a girl’s mother:
“Our daughter has ADHD and wasn’t able to focus on her portion. Marcel was the only one who could get her to achieve so much. His patience, love and dedication were beyond belief. Without him, there would have been no bat mitzvah.”
The father of a young man had this to say:
“My son, Robbie, is shy and soft-spoken. We were concerned he wouldn’t want to have a bar mitzvah. Marcel was able to bring him to the point where he mastered his Torah portion and even worked on vocal training to improve the way Robbie sounds. Marcel is a master teacher, and any child is fortunate who has him as a teacher.”
Cohen’s bar/bat mitzvah tutoring service is continuing to grow, by referrals, word-of-mouth and through his website: www.mybarmitzvahlessons.com. He continues to teach larger groups of special needs adults, but noted he feels most effective doing one-on-one work.
“My vocation is based on my brother,” Cohen said with emotion. “That’s what he’s given me. I feel there are many kids out there who think they can’t have a bar or bat mitzvah. But it was my love both for Aaron and for Judaism that encouraged me to gain the skills and knowledge to pursue this important calling. Every child I help to achieve this coming of age is in his merit.”
By Judy Greenwald | Contributing Writer