WHEN ANNA WEST Ott became the cantor at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple (AEMT) in New Brunswick, in April 1999, she came home to central Jersey and joined a congregation that, she said, not only worshiped together, but made and enjoyed music as a community.
Ott didn’t grow up in the Reform movement, but, she said, “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.” Now, after 21 years with AEMT, she is widely regarded as being at the vanguard of musicians and clergy transforming the use of music in sacred and community settings.
Ott is retiring on June 30 and will be succeeded by Cantor Mark Stanton.
Raised in Metuchen, where she belonged to Congregation Neve Shalom, Ott attended day schools, including Bruriah High School for Girls in Elizabeth. After graduating from Douglass College at Rutgers University with a major in music education and piano, she worked as a singer, pianist, educator, and choral director.
In the ’80s, while raising her three sons, she served as a choir leader at Temple B’nai Shalom in East Brunswick. After joining Temple Sholom in Plainfield, she substituted for the cantor during his vacation, which, she said, “proved to be a turning point.” In 1994, she entered the cantorial program at the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York and was ordained in 1998.
Ott said her vision for AEMT was based on her belief that “music is the language beyond words that expresses feelings, thoughts, and prayers”; her aims “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.”
At AEMT, Ott coordinated the Hamelsky Music Scholar-in-Residence program — her first scholar was Josh Jacobson, the founder of the Zamir Chorale of Boston — gave guitar lessons, established the Awesome Family Service Band, developed initiatives like the annual Simchat Zimrah concert, and created the Jew Directions teen choir to join the Junior Choir and the Kol Emet adult choir.
In partnership with pianist/composer Dave Schlossberg, Ott has made AEMT’s Shabbat service a musical celebration.
In addition to cofounding Makhelat HaMercaz: Jewish Choir of Central Jersey, Ott has directed Kol Halayla, the Jewish a cappella group at Rutgers; founded the Anshe Segulah Men’s Chorus to sing for Yom HaShoah; and established what is now HaZamir Central Jersey.
In the wider community, Ott has collaborated on many interfaith concerts and gatherings, including the local Interfaith Thanksgiving Service.
Her “most exciting and memorable career moment,” she said, came in July 2017, when Kol Emet received a standing ovation at the North American Jewish Choral Festival, attended by hundreds who “believe in Jewish choral music as an important statement of pride and unity.”
The pandemic necessitated the cancelation of Ott’s retirement dinner, but temple members presented a Zoom concert in her honor. She celebrated her last service on Zoom on June 12, and her “retirement weekend” concluded with a virtual concert by composer Noah Aronson.
Ott thanked her rabbinic colleagues, including AEMT Rabbi Emeritus Bennett Miller and Senior Rabbi Philip Bazeley, for their “support and encouragement.”
“It’s been a wonderful and fulfilling 21 years,” she said.