By Deb Silverthorn
It was always the dream of twins Elisa and Shoshana Abrams, now Cantor Elisa Abrams Cohn and Cantor Shoshana Abrams Kaikov, to be together, to serve together and to share their voices together. Now their dream has come true, and the Tarrant County Jewish community is blessed that they are “home.”
“I’m pinching myself that we’re together, just down the road from one another,” said Cantor Elisa Abrams Cohn, who on Sept. 1 began serving as spiritual leader at Congregation Beth Shalom in Arlington. “I feel so fortunate to be serving this small — but mighty — congregation, my dream position!”
Waiting to welcome Cantor Abrams Cohn to Texas was her sister, who moved here in 2012, first as cantor and education director at Congregation Ahavath Sholom, and now as religious school director at Beth-El Congregation, both in Fort Worth.
“Our goal, to transform Judaism, individually and together, is now real,” said Shoshana, who with Elisa led a “Sounds of Selichot” musical service, in a joint Tarrant County congregational gathering, Saturday night. “Opening the [High] Holy Days together, opening the gates with one another, is ‘coming home.’”
The Abrams sisters, daughters of Al and Vicky, grew up in Sherman Oaks, California. Their earliest education was at Emek Hebrew Academy and they were raised at Congregation Adat Ari El. It was now Rabbi Emeritus Moshe Rothblum, and now retired Cantor Ira Bigeleisen, who paved the women’s future. Both women share “that because of Cantor Bigeleisen, we couldn’t get enough Judaism.”
Just after their b’not mitzvah — fittingly held on Shabbat Shira, the Shabbat of Song — Elisa and Shoshana joined their congregation’s youth chorale and community choirs. They tutored b’nai mitzvah students, helped lead High Holy Days services, participated in Rabbi Rothblum’s annual musicals and participated in the recording of “The Chanukah Song” for the “Eight Crazy Nights” soundtrack.
The duo, who attended a high school music conservatory at California State Los Angeles, both laugh saying that it’s good their careers rely on their voices, and not on the trumpet and clarinet they played in student orchestras.
The ladies say their fate was sealed one night after Cantor Bigeleisen called the sisters “junior cantors,” and invited them — high school juniors at the time — to sing in a performance of cantors from around the country. They say they still recall, vividly, sitting on the couch that night talking about how they “had to do this for the rest of our lives.”
“Elisa and Shoshana are wonderful and remarkable women of the finest character,” said Cantor Bigeleisen, their beloved mentor, who after 35 years in the clergy is living his next best life as a program director of the City Island Yacht Club in New York. “We have a long history, since they were 8 years old, and I’m so proud of them. I know they’re always serving in a sensitive and beautiful way.”
After graduating from Cleveland Humanities Magnet at Cleveland Charter High School, the two went to University of California at Santa Barbara, which they chose because of its strong Hillel program. While majoring in music, with an emphasis in voice, and taking almost every Hebrew and Judaic studies class available to them, they taught at the Congregation B’nai B’rith religious school.
Following UCSB, they attended the Jewish Theological Seminary’s H.L. Miller Cantorial School. They both realized their lives as clergy would in great part be serving as educators, and they couldn’t imagine leading as klei kodesh, vessels of holiness, without a degree in Jewish education. Both women served cantorial internships and taught at numerous congregations while still in school. Ultimately, they each earned a Master of Sacred Music degree, a certificate of hazzan (cantor) and a master’s degree in Jewish education.
They were roommates for most of their lives, but in 2012, at John F. Kennedy International Airport, when Shoshana was bound for DFW, they both sobbed at the realization they’d not be together for the first time in their 27 years although they were excited to begin their careers. Shoshana’s first local position was as cantor at Congregation Ahavath Sholom in Fort Worth and Elisa’s, at Congregation Beth Shalom in Wilmington, Delaware, but it was hard to say goodbye.
“The opportunity to teach, to share my passion for Judaism and to balance that with my home life is a true gift,” said Shoshana, who as Beth-El religious school director infuses her heart of music into the program’s curriculum at every opportunity. “Every day I walk in is a vibrant and joyous one.”
“Shoshana’s invested in each student and equally in every detail of the school,” said Beth-El’s Rabbi Brian Zimmerman, “bringing a joy to education, a love for Judaism, its holidays, its rituals, its teachings and most of all a love for the process of raising children in the path of Torah.
“Her training as a cantor brings an extra dimension of soulfulness to the Temple and the school and, on Yom Kippur, when Shoshana sings of the seal of judgment that takes place in this season, you hear the longing that is spoken of in our liturgical texts. The cry of a religious leader who prays with such heart, soul and the hope that their personal petition will open the gates of heaven,” Rabbi Zimmerman added.
In the depth of the pandemic and with the passing of Elisa’s father-in-law, Al, the need for the women and their growing families to be together was clear.
“Life’s too short and family too important,” said Elisa. “We loved our congregational family, but we all needed to be together. Now here, we know it was the right decision.”
“Cantor Elisa is an amazing person, a breath of fresh air and a vibrant, caring and engaging woman. We’re all looking forward to the meaningful relationships we know are going to grow with her here,” said Michael Kapin, Congregation Beth Shalom’s board president.
The sisters’ roots deepened quickly when, in late 2020, their parents moved from Sherman Oaks, California, to just minutes from Shoshana’s in-laws — and longtime locals — Mimi and Roni Kaikov. In 2021, Elisa’s mother-in-law, Ingrid Cohn, formerly of Canton, Ohio, also moved to be close to the family.
“When the girls were in preschool, they each led their class performances,” said Vicky Abrams. “Being all together, seeing that foundation be the base for their absolute love for music and Judaism, we couldn’t be prouder.”
Their families expanding, Elisa and her husband Daniel and their children Eden and Moana, and Shoshana and her husband Mordecai and their children Ella and Aria, couldn’t be happier to be growing closer — literally.