Karla Ember, beloved cantor and choir director, dies after brutal attack

Karla Ember

“Radiant” and “giving” are the words friends use to describe Karla Marie Ember, 54, cantorial soloist for Congregation Chaverim, who died Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2010, from injuries sustained in an attack on Friday, Sept. 3.

Ember was allegedly stabbed by Richard J. Wojcik, who has been variously described as her ex-boyfriend or ex-husband. In March, according to the Arizona Department of Corrections website, Wojcik was released from prison after serving one year of an 18-month sentence for aggravated domestic violence.

According to the Tucson Police Department, Ember called the police after seeing Wojcik near her East Side home. Police served an order of protection prohibiting him from any contact with her and escorted him from the area, but Wojcik returned an hour later and forced his way into her home. Another person in the home sustained minor injuries during the attack. Wojcik fled on foot but patrol units and service dog unit officers found and arrested him. Wojcik was booked into Pima County Jail and charged with attempted first-degree murder, domestic violence-aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and several other felony charges. The first charge will be updated to first-degree murder after the issuing hearing, police said.

Along with her role at Chaverim, Ember was a music teacher at Tucson Country Day School and was co-director of the Tucson Jewish Youth Choir with Cantor Janece Cohen of Congregation Or Chadash. They had also recently started an adult Jewish community choir

Last week, while Ember’s life still hung in the balance, Cohen arranged a benefit “Concert of Healing and Hope” that was held Sunday at the Tucson Jewish Community Center. Around a thousand people turned out for the benefit in an overwhelming show of support, with every seat in the JCC auditorium filled and hundreds of people standing and spilling out into the lobby. Performers included Klezmerkaba, choirs from Chaverim, Ner Tamid and the Tucson Country Day School, the Tucson Jewish Youth Choir, the new adult choir, On Broadway, and several soloists, most of them former students of Ember’s.

Mary Ann Christensen, Ember’s sister-in-law and “best friend for 35 years” spoke to the AJP before the concert. “Karla was an amazing person as far as her kindness and her wit,” she said. Ember’s 18-year-old daughter, Laura, “is being amazing … so adult and loving,” said Christensen, adding that she is Laura’s mother now.

Later, Christensen told the concert audience, “There are things that we don’t want to happen, but we have to accept. There are things that we don’t want to know, but we have to learn. And people we can’t live without, but we have to let go of,” before sharing remembrances of Ember, such as how she would get the family’s muddled renditions of “Happy Birthday” on key.

Cohen told the crowd, “Karla will be thrilled this is a standing-room-only event. I know she’s with us tonight.”

Cohen was a close friend of Ember’s since they were students together at Sahauro High School. “Karla was one of the most giving people I’ve ever known. Her empathy for people was just extraordinary and people really loved her for that,” she said. “Not only wouldn’t she hurt a fly but she would go out of her way to help people, people who had no claim on her.”

At Chaverim, “We’re feeling devastated. It’s very hard to imagine moving forward. She was the cantor for quite a number of years,” Rabbi Stephanie Aaron told the AJP.

“She just has a special presence. Her smile … she just has a radiant smile on the bimah,” said Aaron, her reluctance to use the past tense indicative of shock and denial.

But Aaron has encouraged congregants to focus on good memories rather than outrage. “We’re trying to say no to the violence of her former husband … to try to take back Karla,” she explained. At Rosh Hashanah services on Mt. Lemmon, a Chaverim tradition, one girl created a display spelling out “Karla” with pinecones on the white sand, Aaron said, and another told her, “I think Karla’s there whenever the sun shines, it’s Karla’s smile.”

Counselors from the Pima County Attorney’s Victim Services program were scheduled to talk with students at Chaverim’s religious school on Monday, Aaron noted.

Congregants have been writing to Aaron with memories of Ember that she plans to use when a funeral service can be held; it has been delayed because of the need for an autopsy. “That’s also very difficult, not to have the frame of Jewish mourning,” said Aaron. “There’s the service, then shiva, then you have shloshim [the 30 days following the burial]. Now there’s just a feeling of limbo.”

Ember was born in Oregon and moved to Tucson when she was 11, said Cohen. She attended Townsend Middle School, Sahuaro High School and the University of Arizona. Around 1979, when Cohen was the cantorial soloist at Temple Emanu-El, Ember was her accompanist. Through that experience, said Cohen, Ember became more and more involved in Judaism and synagogue life, becoming a Jew by choice “a number of years ago, way before Laura was born.”

Ember later served as cantorial soloist for Temple Emanu-El and Congregation Ner Tamid.

Her family members, said Cohen, were always respectful of Ember’s Judaism. “Her sister Karen did the onegs at Ner Tamid and at Chaverim for a while,” she said.

Cohen said she’d met Wojcik several times – he was at Laura’s Bat Mitzvah, she recalled – but didn’t know him well. “Karla kind of kept him separated from the rest of her life,” she said.

Rabbi Helen Cohn, who served as interim rabbi at Chaverim from 2006 to 2008, noted that while Ember was “so outgoing and friendly and kind,” she also had a private side.

And she was modest, said Cohn, recalling that when Chaverim honored Ember with a tribute evening in 2007, the cantor didn’t have a single photo that could be used for publicity.

Ember was preceded in death by her father, Oscar Christensen. She is survived by her mother, Mary Christensen of Tucson; son, Ben (Julie) Radack of Washington; daughter, Laura Ember of Tucson; stepdaughters, Trisha (Gino) Perkins of Mississippi, Amy (Kevin) Cutright of Kansas, and Stephani Ember of Cairo, Egypt; siblings, Kati (Roger) Ball of Sonoita, Ariz., and Peter (Mary Ann) Christensen and Karen (Barry) Spencer, all of Tucson; and seven grandchildren and step-grandchildren.

Ember’s voice was so beautiful, “I would say to her, ‘You’re singing with the angels, sending the prayers to highest spaces,’” said Aaron, adding, “It’s so unreal. I just don’t understand why someone who is very gentle would have to have such a brutal ending to her life.”


The LEAH (Let’s End Abusive Households) program at Jewish Family & Children’s Services provides domestic violence prevention and counseling services to Jewish individuals and families. The program, funded by the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona, also provides information and education to Jewish organizations and other community-based agencies. For more information, call 795-0300, ext.2336 or visit http://www.jfcstucson.org/domestic_violence.htm.