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Honoring co-founder Karla Ember, Kol Shirah choir lifts voices in song

Cantor Janece Cohen leads members of the Kol Shirah choir at the Tucson Jewish Food Festival on Nov. 7, 2010. (Photo courtesey of Linda Levine)

Cantor Janece Cohen of Congregation Or Chadash, started a new adult Jewish choir in August with her friend Karla Ember, cantorial soloist at Congregation Chaverim. A month later Ember was brutally murdered.

Recently, Cohen was considering a name for the new choir. “I thought of Kol Shirah, which means the voice of song,” says Cohen, who realized, “Oh my God, that’s Karla’s Hebrew name. Kol Shirah literally meant Karla’s voice.”

For the past 11 years, Cohen and Ember directed the Tucson Jewish Youth Choir, which has included members from every local synagogue plus unaffiliated Jewish youth. A few people had approached Cohen about starting an adult choir, she says, but after Ember’s death “some people wondered if the Jewish community choir would go on.” For Cohen, there was no question that it would.

“What makes us different from congregation choirs is that we don’t focus on sacred music. We focus on the music of the Jewish people,” says Cohen, adding that the newly established choir may spice up an Israeli folk song, or sing in Hebrew, Yiddish or Ladino.

For example, Kol Shirah will begin performing Giuseppe Verdi’s “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves” from the Italian opera Nabucco in the spring. “It’s a classical piece written in Italian,” she says, “that a friend in L.A. translated into Hebrew for us.”

“Our level is very high. We sing in three or four-part harmony, sometimes five or six. What’s necessary [to join] is the ability to carry a tune and a love of singing. We’re not picking from congregation choirs,” Cohen told the AJP, adding that participating in Kol Shirah is a great opportunity to meet other people from different congregations who enjoy singing.

The new choir has already been invited to perform in the Psalm Festival in Los Angeles in March 2011. Kol Shirah debuted at the Or Chadash Jewish Food Festival on Nov. 7, and also sang the National Anthem at the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona Campaign kickoff at Congregation Anshei Israel on Nov. 17.

Kol Shirah and the youth choir celebrated Chanukah with a performance at Loews Ventana Canyon Resort on Friday, Dec. 8.

The new adult choir currently has 25 participants. “We’re open to as many new members as there are [Jewish] people who would love to sing with us” come January, says choir member/secretary Linda Horowitz.

The community bond that forms in a choir by singing with members of other congregations “is really special,” says Cohen, “being able to share Jewish music on an adult, sophisticated level and still have a lot of fun with it.”

“There’s nothing that feels better than singing in good harmony,” she says. “It’s so satisfying and incredibly uplifting.”

For information about joining Kol Shirah, contact Linda Horowitz at 331-0592 or