The merged voices of more than two dozen cantors filled the sanctuary of Congregation Ahavat Olam, in celebration not only of Hanukka but of a new house of worship.
The New Jersey Cantors Concert Ensemble performed to an overflow crowd in the Howell synagogue on Dec. 5. The event commemorated the completion of the synagogue’s new building after the merger of Congregation Ahavat Shalom of Lakewood and Congregation Ahavat Achim of Howell this September.
About 500 people attended the concert.
“It was the perfect opportunity to showcase our new sanctuary and banquet hall to the general Jewish community,” said Glenn Cantor, a member of the shul’s board of directors. “The concert helped establish us as a Jewish social center of the Howell, Jackson, and Freehold area.”
The ensemble, founded in 1975 and sponsored by the NJ region of the Cantors Assembly, includes 25 cantors from Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist synagogues in northern and central New Jersey. Claiming to be “the world’s first choir made up of both men and women cantors,” today more than half its members are women. Music director and conductor Sheldon M. Levin said the ensemble raises scholarship funds — an average of $6,000 a year — for cantorial students at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Hebrew Union College, and the Academy for Jewish Religion, all in New York.
(Levin serves as cantor and educational director at Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen, and on Dec. 19, the ensemble was there to perform at “Levin at 11,” a concert honoring his decade plus one year at the temple.)
“People assume because we are a cantors’ choir, we sing only cantorial music,” Levin said. “We do pop songs, Israeli songs, Yiddish selections, Sephardi music, as well as a much-anticipated comedy piece. It’s a wide range of very enjoyable music with a lot of audience participation. We also perform with the children’s choir at many of the temples, and at Jewish day schools and nursing homes.”
“The ensemble has always been there for me,” said Jacqueline Shuchat-Marx, cantor at Temple Emanu-El of Edison. “During the highs of my life, they made me feel higher, and during the lows they gave me something to hang onto. The audiences keep getting bigger, which indicates that Jewish music is a surefire way to rev up the spirit, especially in these tough times when we don’t have much.”
Cantor Ruth Katz Green of Temple Beth Shalom in Manalapan has been a member of the ensemble for 16 years, together with her husband, Dan Green, a retired cantor from Congregation B’nai Israel in Toms River. “There is nothing better than making Jewish music,” she said. “Women add four-part harmony to the ensemble. It sounds much more balanced with both men and women.”
Ahavat Olam’s Cantor David Amar, also an ensemble member, said he continues to get e-mails praising the Dec. 5 performance at his temple. About 22 members of his Shirron Junior Choir sang along on several numbers presented at the concert. “When you do something you love with others who share that love, it’s like therapy,” Amar said.