Cantor looks back on career in Jewish music as she retires from Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple

Cantor Anna West Ott, of Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, is retiring after 21 years.PHOTO COURTESY OF ANSHE EMETH MEMORIAL TEMPLE
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Cantor Anna West Ott, of Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick, is retiring after 21 years.PHOTO COURTESY OF ANSHE EMETH MEMORIAL TEMPLE

When Anna West Ott entered Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick in April 1999 for her interview to become its cantor, she recognized the opportunity that awaited her. The position would bring her home to Central New Jersey, where she was raised. It also would allow her to fulfill her vision of a congregation that not only worshiped together, but made and enjoyed music as a community.

Twenty-one years later as she prepared to retire, Ott looked back on a fulfilling career that placed her among the vanguard of Jewish musicians and clergy who have been transforming the use of music in sacred and community settings.

By 1999, musical traditions in Reform congregations had been evolving. Drums, bass, guitars and wind instruments were being heard with more folk-style music at Sabbath and holiday services. The changes had been percolating in a few synagogues in New York and Los Angeles since the 1990s. Ancient songs, prayers and chants were being updated with new melodies and rhythms by artists like Debbie Friedman, Craig Taubman and Jeff Klepper.

Ott, who had entered the clergy in midlife as a seasoned performer and teacher, embraced this new direction enthusiastically and was excited for the chance to bring her own vision to this historic congregation dating to 1859.

“Although I didn’t grow up in the Reform movement, I was drawn to the notion of full music, with choirs and instruments and beautiful full-voiced singing that I’d heard in Reform temples,” she said.

Raised in Metuchen, where she attended Congregation Neve Shalom, Ott was yeshiva-educated through high school at Hillel Academy in Perth Amboy and the Bruriah School for Girls in Elizabeth. She majored in music education and piano at Douglass College, and sang in the Kirkpatrick Chapel Choir. After college, she taught vocal music in the Piscataway elementary schools for 10 years and also sang professionally.

While performing and teaching music were always her chosen vocations, becoming a cantor, which required a seminary education, was not on Ott’s trajectory during the first 40-plus years of her life.

But connections to area Reform synagogues soon would plant the idea. In the 1980s, she served as a section leader for the choir at Temple B’nai Shalom in East Brunswick, while being a stay-at-home mom to her three sons. She joined Temple Sholom in Plainfield, where she was asked to substitute for the cantor during his vacation.

“This proved to be a turning point,” she said.

In 1994, she entered seminary in New York, attending the Academy for Jewish Religion’s cantorial program. She was ordained in 1998.

When she arrived for her interview at Anshe Emeth, she shared her vision for a Jewish community that observed the traditional holidays and life cycle events with music that would joyfully engage congregants as participants, not just worshipers in the pews.

One of her inherited responsibilities would be coordinating the temple’s Hamelsky Music Scholar in Residence program. Asked whom she’d invite, she answered without hesitation:  “Josh Jacobson,” the renowned Jewish music scholar and founder of the Zamir Chorale of Boston – an ambitious target for a new cantor.

She landed the job, and, yes, Jacobson became her first scholar in residence in 2000. Other noted musicians have followed, including Sam Adler, composer and professor at the Eastman School of Music; Eleanor Epstein, founder and conductor of Zemer Chai, the Jewish Chorale of the Nation’s Capital, and many more.

Ott joined then-Rabbi Bennett Miller on the bima and immediately began enhancing the musical life at Anshe Emeth, while tending to the traditional cantorial responsibilities of services, holidays and bar and bat mitzvah lessons.

Knowing that “music is the language beyond words that expresses feelings, thoughts and prayers,” Ott says her vision “encompassed choirs for every age group, guitar instruction that would lead to bands and more instruments and involvement not just at Anshe Emeth but also with the local Jewish community and the interfaith community at large – in short, sharing a culture of music with great stylistic range.”

In her first year, she started giving guitar lessons and established the Awesome Family Service Band. New traditions evolved such as an annual Simchat Zimrah (spring concert) in May, featuring all choirs and bands at their best.

The Adult Choir, renamed Kol Emet, and the Junior Choir for grades 3-6 were eventually joined by Jew Directions for teens. “It was important that there be continuity for the kids who wanted to continue singing Jewish music after aging out of Junior Choir.” Jew Directions became one of the temple’s most visible ambassadors, not only performing several times a year at services, but also at senior centers and youth choral festivals and even the State Theatre in New Brunswick.

She introduced the congregation to the new movers in contemporary Jewish music, bringing in a cappella pioneers Beat’achon and Daniel Henkin’s Tizmoret; Sam Glaser, and Neshama Carlebach. In 2006, she started Ohavei Tarbut (“Lovers of Culture”), a subscription arts series that introduced audiences to Margot Leverett and the Klezmer Mountain Boys, flutist Mattan Klein, women’s a cappella sextet Vocolot, Middle East fusion band The Epichorus, and current Jewish bluegrass sensation, Nefesh Mountain.   

Ott found that people came to synagogue for a wide variety of reasons. While saying Kaddish or providing religious education for their children were very important for most congregants, many also came for book discussions, to work at the rummage sale, attend choir rehearsals or to simply be with the community on Shabbat. Her goal became building a wider community of friends through music.

“We had an array of talented musicians in our band who deserved their night to play, as well as their legions of fans who wanted to hear them,” she said.

The temple’s talented congregants found a welcoming stage and audience in 2008 at the first Cabaret Night, which continues annually today. Temple musical “stars” were born and also became part of the annual Purimshpiel.

Sharing music with the wider Jewish community, she co-founded Makhelat Hamercaz – the Jewish Choir of Central Jersey in 2003 in partnership with Hazzan Sheldon Levin. Its members come from Middlesex, Monmouth and Somerset counties.

Other endeavors in the wider Jewish community included directing Kol Halayla, the Jewish a cappella group at Rutgers from 2001-03; founding the Anshe Segulah Men’s Chorus to sing for Yom Hashoah from 2003-15; and founding what is now HaZamir Central Jersey, part of the Zamir Choral Foundation’s network of over 40 teen choirs in the US and Israel. She did that for 14 years beginning in 2001, conducting in prestigious venues like Carnegie Hall.

Taking Anshe Emeth into the greater interfaith community of New Brunswick helped bring about the return of the annual Interfaith Thanksgiving Service with clergy and congregations of many local houses of worship, including Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Native American, Buddhist and Hindu sharing words of unity along with their music. Ott collaborated on joint concerts with music directors in the interfaith community and gatherings for Martin Luther King Day and Earth Day. John Sheridan, organist and music director of Christ Church, joined Kol Emet as a singer in 2015.

Ott’s partnership with pianist/composer Dave Schlossberg, known affectionately as “Piano Dave,” brought together two talented artists devoted to turning every Shabbat service into a musical celebration. She met Dave when he was 16 and a lifelong member of Anshe Emeth. Tipped off that he was a superb pianist, Ott asked him to play “Rhapsody in Blue” for her. When she needed a lead-sheet player to add chords and depth to traditional melodies, she asked him to flesh out some tunes, and a partnership was born.

Schlossberg became the keyboard player with the Awesome Band and his playing time increased, while he studied piano performance at the College of New Jersey. In 2009, he became the temple’s fulltime Collaborative Keyboard Artist and an integral part of the music at Anshe Emeth.

Schlossberg was the accompanist for an event that Ott calls her “most exciting and memorable career moment.” In July 2017, Kol Emet sang at the North American Jewish Choral Festival, an event attended by 500 cantors, rabbis, soloists, music directors, accompanists, composers “and all those who love and believe in Jewish choral music as an important statement of pride and unity.” Kol Emet performed six pieces and received a standing ovation, “that will not long be forgotten” she said.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ott’s retirement celebrations had to be altered and her farewell dinner canceled. But temple members presented a concert in her honor via Zoom, and she will celebrate her last service on Zoom on June 12. The “retirement weekend” concludes with a virtual concert by Anshe Emeth favorite Noah Aronson. Her retirement is official on June 30.

“It’s been a wonderful and fulfilling 21 years,” she said. “Thank you to all of my rabbinic colleagues, including Bennett Miller, Neal Gold, Claudio Kogan, Daniel Fellman, Rebecca Epstein, Maya Glasser, and current Senior Rabbi Philip Bazeley for their support and encouragement. I wish my incoming successor, Cantor Mark Stanton, a most satisfying tenure as well.

  • This article was submitted by Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple, as told to Sandra Lanman.