Anita F. Hochman is stepping down from a job that has given her the chance to harmonize heart and soul for 36 years.
“Being a cantor has been the coming together of my two greatest loves -- music and Judaism,” says Hochman, since 1981 the music director, as well as an educator and spiritual leader, at Cherry Hill’s Congregation M’kor Shalom.
She’s had a role in preparing 2,500 young people for their bar or bat mitzvah; has made music at countless worship services, weddings, baby namings, and funerals; and has nurtured the welcoming vibe for which M’kor, a Reform congregation founded in 1974, is known.
“Cantor Hochman has been the soundtrack to a lot of people’s lives, and her leaving is a bittersweet situation for us,” says Rabbi Jennifer Frankel, who has led the 600-household congregation for the last eight years. The new cantor, Elaya Jenkins-Adelberg, arrives July 1, and “we believe she has the sound and the spirit we love,” the rabbi adds.
During an interview in her office, Hochman says she’ll continue as part-time cantor emerita after she retires June 30. "Music has always been there, at the cellular level, for me,” she says.
An engaging person with a twinkle in her smile and a mellifluous voice, Hochman grew up singing at school and in synagogue in Levittown, Bucks County; by the time she was a teenager, she felt a calling to become a cantor.
It was the early 1970s, and female cantors were unusual, if not unheard of, at least locally. “There were no women to turn to and say, ‘I want to do what she does,’ ” Hochman recalls.
But she could sing, had taught herself to play guitar, and was a huge fan of Debbie Friedman, a singer-songwriter synonymous with the era’s contemporary Jewish music movement. The pop star Janis Ian became an inspiration as well.
“I remember sitting on the living room floor with my guitar with the turntable going, trying to figure out [Ian’s] chords by ear,” Hochman recalls.
She further deepened her involvement in music by working for several summers as a song leader at a Jewish youth camp in the Poconos, and earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in music. She was still a student in 1979 when she was hired as a part-time cantor at Temple Emanuel in Willingboro.
Two years later, she heard that M’kor was looking for someone to fill the position full time. “I was only 24, but I thought, ‘What the heck,’ ” says Hochman. “I had nothing to lose.”
The congregation “was new and young, and not afraid to do things nobody else had done,” recalls Rebecca Silver, who was among the M’kor leaders who interviewed Hochman.
“I liked that she was honest and very forthcoming and, of course, enthusiastic,” Silver, a retired Cherry Hill educator, says from her Philadelphia home. “She pointed out that ‘people weren’t used to a woman’s voice’ as cantor. But she was willing to take the challenge.”
Even greater challenges were to come: In 1994, Carole Neulander, whose husband, Rabbi Fred J. Neulander, hired Hochman as cantor, was found bludgeoned to death in the Neulanders’ Cherry Hill home.
It took the better part of a decade before the lurid crime drama finally concluded with Fred Neulander’s conviction; the entire ordeal was “shattering” for the community in and around M’kor, and music “was a lifeline,’ Hochman says.
“It was a source of tremendous comfort and healing when we didn‘t know how to heal from that kind of horror. Through the power of our voices, we could take care of each other.”
Similarly, and under far more uplifting circumstances, Hochman has harnessed that power through the Unity Choir, a signature program at M'kor.
What began as a Martin Luther King Day collaboration between the synagogue and Camden’s Kaighn Avenue Baptist Church has blossomed into a soulful blend of 100-plus Jewish and Christian voices. I've been blessed to hear them in concert.
"It's a whole other level when we all come together and remind ourselves of what we have in common,” Hochman says.
Long partnered with Robyn Sole, a teacher, Hochman says her sexual orientation has never been an issue at M’kor or anywhere else. “I can’t remember a time when it was an obstacle for me,” she says.
As a farewell gift, the congregation recently sent the couple to Nashville, where they met Ian and her wife, and had lunch.
“It was mind-blowing,” Hochman says. “I started to cry when I told her what her music has meant to me, and tissues were flying at me from all around the table.”
Better save a tissue or two: Ian, the celebrated singer of “Society’s Child” and “At Seventeen,” also will perform at the June 4 celebration in Hochman’s honor. The event will be held at the synagogue.
“After I retire, I’m really looking forward to seeing my family and friends more,” the cantor tells me. “I’m only 60. I’ll be going to concerts and volunteering.
“And after conducting all these years,” Hochman adds, “maybe I’ll sing in a choir myself.”