Anita Hochman was just picking up chords and discovering her singing chops when her best friend and jam partner Leon Sher shared a new vinyl album that would become the single greatest influence on both their careers.
The year was 1972. The record was “Sing Unto God,” a collection of songs by Debbie Friedman, a young Reform movement singer/songwriter whose music was gaining explosive popularity at summer camps and with youth groups. The two future cantors, 14 or 15 at the time, were simply blown away by the liturgy set to guitar and joyfully voiced in both English and Hebrew.
“It was something we were thirsty for and we didn’t even know it,” recalled Hochman, Cong. M’kor Shalom’s cantor since 1981. Sher, still a close friend, is music teacher and leads the choir at Cong. Beth El in Voorhees.
“It was so fresh and brand new, like nothing we ever heard before,” she added. “We became completely obsessed with this music, and spent hours and hours trying to learn every chord by ear and then by heart.”
It’s a musical love affair shared by millions. Considered the bard of Reform music, Friedman’s folk music-influenced works are approachable and uplifting. Her irresistible melodies inspire participation and get lodged in one’s head. Friedman’s most well known songs, including Mi Shebeirach (the healing prayer), have become standard liturgy not only in Reform movement synagogues but many Conservative, Reconstructionist and Renewal shuls as well. Her fan base reaches across denominations and into Christian communities.
To pay tribute to Friedman, cantors and soloists from seven area synagogues are taking part in a concert Apr. 17 at M’kor Shalom in Cherry Hill. “Another Song Will Rise” marks the fifth yahrzeit since her passing at age 50 due to complications from pneumonia.
Like many synagogues across the nation, M’kor held its first tribute to Friedman five years ago, roughly a month after her passing Jan. 9, 2011. Some 600 people attended that concert.
“It seemed to me that five years later was a great opportunity to pay tribute to her again,” said Hochman. “Her music is no less influential and impactful. We continue to sing her music and will for generations to come.”
Like the last time around, Hochman’s musical colleagues are enthusiastically on board. Other participants include Cantor Jen Cohen of Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, Cantorial Soloist Sandra Messinger of Adath Emanu-El in Mount Laurel, Hazzan Alisa Pomerantz-Boro and Sher of Cong. Beth El, Cantor Neil Schnitzer of Temple Emanuel in Cherry Hill, Cantor Marlena Taenzer of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth Abraham of Carmel, and Cantor Joseph Lebovic of Cong. Beth Tikvah in Marlton.
M’kor’s musical ensembles, including both choirs, the “Bayit” (house) band, religious-school students and Cantorial Soloist Suzanne Guinane are contributors. In addition, three cantoral students–two of whom are currently studying at the Debbie Friedman School of Scared Music at Hebrew Union College–and one from the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary–will join the celebration. There will also be participation of a one-time Community Choir created just for this concert.
For Schnitzer, Friedman’s music entered his life at a time when he was questioning whether or not to continue pursuing his cantorial ambitions. Having come of age in Conservative synagogues, he had only a passing knowledge of Friedman’s work until the mid 1990s. Two influences, a rabbi and Friedman’s music, opened his eyes to some of the more liberal styles of Jewish observance.
“Debbie Friedman’s work has done so much more than simply given us her new melodies with which to pray and celebrate,” he said. “She has spawned an entire generation of Jewish music that is inspiring adults and children alike to connect with Jewish prayer and Jewish life…She has liberated us to praise G-d in ways that are musically moving to us today.”
“Another Song Will Rise” takes place 4 p.m. April 17 at M’kor Shalom. Concert highlights will include: Mi Shebeirach, Miriam’s Song, Sing Unto God, Not By Might, T’filat Haderech and L’chi Lach.
The cost is $18. Children under 13 are free.
For more information, contact the M’kor Shalom office at (856) 424-4220 or visit www.mkorshalom.org