After 20 years as a corporate lawyer, Brian Kalver of Morristown now sings for his supper. Invested as a cantor last spring following five years of study at the Academy for Jewish Religion in Riverdale, NY, he started in September at Congregation B’nai Israel of Basking Ridge as hazzan.
Singing “has particular meaning for me because it’s such a contrast to being a lawyer,” Kalver said. “I’m so enamored of the idea of having my life’s work be part of the fabric of the synagogue and the Jewish community.” By contrast, he pointed out, “in law I was involved in the business part of life as opposed to the family part of life, the growing up part of life, the getting older part of life.”
His model for his new role is Cantor Jack Korbman, who, before retiring in December 2015, served 30 years at Adath Shalom in Morris Plains, where Kalver, his wife Sue Och, and their three children (ages 21, 18, and 14) are longtime members.
“Jack is so beloved by people in the synagogue. People are crazy about him,” said Kalver. “Whatever I accomplished as a lawyer, I never established that kind of relationship with my clients.” Kalver, 54, said he’d be grateful “just to have some of that as opposed to the dryness and tensions created between lawyers and the world.”
Though this is Kalver’s first professional cantorial gig, music has been a fixture in his life. He played piano and clarinet growing up, was involved with musicals in high school and at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, sang in a choir while studying at the University of Virginia, and performed in light opera while at University of Pennsylvania Law School. Then he hit a dry spell (as a lawyer in a large firm, he was, he said, “much too busy” to sing) until his first child was born in 1995, when, in addition to caring for the baby, he managed to participate in several local community theater productions.
But he never really considered music more than a hobby — until he started singing with Kol Dodi, a Jewish community choir founded in 1991 by two local cantors, Rikki Lippitz of Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange, and Joel Caplan of Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell. He joined at the suggestion of then Adath Shalom religious school director and friend Rebecca Glass, who also suggested he take on the role of music teacher at the synagogue.
It was during this time that Kalver’s aging mother developed dementia. “I’d go to Kol Dodi and it was a relief to sing,” he said. “It was cathartic in a way that struck me as revealing something about me I did not expect. That was very powerful.”