Annelise Ocanto has had a busy July. Just four weeks ago, she got married. Soon, she will assume her new position as the new cantor at Richboro’s Ohev Shalom of Bucks County.
Annelise Ocanto has had a busy July.
Just four weeks ago, she got married. Then, she and her husband uprooted their Massachusetts life to their new apartment in Bucks County. Last week, she left for her honeymoon in Puerto Rico. And when she comes back, she will assume her new position as the new cantor at Richboro’s Ohev Shalom of Bucks County, effective Aug. 1.
Sporting a bachelor’s degree in early education with a minor in music from the University of Nebraska and cantorial training from the Jewish Theological Seminary, Ocanto, 33, will become the synagogue’s Jewish music educator for the religious schools following three years at Congregation Beth Israel in Worcester, Mass.
She started searching for a new position at the end of January. There was a certain pull to Ohev Shalom, she said, because of their curriculum and the involvement of the community within the congregation. Ocanto interviewed in the middle of February and felt an instant connection.
“I was still exploring other possibilities with other congregations, but I kept coming back to Ohev,” she recalled. “They were excited and I was excited, and I said, ‘OK, let’s do this.’ ”
In addition to her musical background, Ocanto also spent time as a Spanish teacher at a Jewish day school in Massachusetts. She said that one of the things she missed while in her previous position was the ability to be involved in a classroom environment — something that she can do at Ohev Shalom — her role will give her plenty of opportunities to interact with children.
“I heard not only they had a religious school but an early education center in-house,” she said, while fittingly sitting in a large, empty classroom in the middle of the religious school wing that will soon transform into her new office space. “I thought this would be a really great opportunity to get back into working with kids. It could be music, it could be religious education — it could be just reading a story.”
Ocanto has some big plans for incorporating a more musical service, bringing with her some Latin flair courtesy of her Venezuelan roots. Originally born in Boston, she lived in Venezuela with her family for three years before moving to Florida for seven years and then to Omaha, Neb., before returning to the East Coast.
Her parents are both Venezuelan, where, she said, the Jewish population is very religious and had unusual ways of finding their Jewish identities. Her father was born Jewish but was not observant until declaring, at 8 years old, that he wanted to go to Yom Kippur services. (“I don’t know what 8-year-old child actively volunteers himself to go to services,” she said, laughing at her father’s uncommon choice.) He became more involved when her family moved to the United States. Her mother decided to be Jewish.
Her father would incorporate Ladino — the ancient language that is a mixture of Hebrew and Spanish — into their Seders, and her mother got them involved in Jewish organizations, from Hillel to different shuls to BBYO.
This influenced her and her younger brother Daniel’s into pursuing their own Jewish identities, she said — a quest and determination she is bringing that with her in her new position.
She had always kept her Latina and Jewish identities separate, she said, until 2008, after her first year of cantorial school. At the suggestion of one of her synagogue’s previous cantors in Omaha — also Latin American — she had the opportunity to lead High Holidays services, which she had never done before, at a congregation in the Dominican Republic. She created booklets in Hebrew, English and Spanish and said it was a life-changing experience.
On Yom Kippur, when many congregants were back at work, she joined just a few others to break the fast, which went beyond just your typical bagels. They took shots of Dominican rum and talked about their families and backgrounds — a celebration unlike anything she had experienced before.
“Seeing a community that had so much Jewish pride and Latina pride and doing everything together as a family, I knew that I could have my Latina roots in my Jewish roots,” she said.
She was involved in both Latino and Jewish student organizations while in college, but still kept the two facets of her life separated. But after her time in the Dominican Republic, she found it easier to begin melding her identities together, being equally proud of both.
“I grew up thinking my Latin roots and Jewish roots were separate entities,” she said. “It didn’t dawn on me until cantorial school that they are one and the same.”
At Ohev Shalom, Ocanto hopes to build up a musical community within the congregration, including creating a youth group and choir. There was a youth choir in the past, and there has been a lot of interest to start it back up again, which she is more than willing to do.
“It’s one big facet of what I do as a cantor. For me personally, music helps me to express what I’m not able to verbally express. I feel that it’s something that everybody can be a part of,” she said, adding that she incorporates Sephardic music into services as well because of her roots.
She also plays the cuatro, a Venezuelan folk guitar, which she used often when she did Jewish music with the kids at her previous synagogue, though she does not sing folk music. She plans on using the instrument more in services to create opportunity to break away from traditional styles and spark conversation.
“My Venezuelan background is an important part of my life. This is gonna make me stand out a little bit but also presents a conversation with people — Venezuela happens to be where my family’s from,” she said.
Her family, including her 25 cousins, has begun to disperse from Venezuela, however, she said, because of the political climate and increasingly unstable environment. Ocanto herself has not been back to the country in about five years due to the difficulty of traveling there.
Many airlines, such as Air Canada and Delta, reduced or discontinued altogether many flights to Venezuela in the last year due to concerns about growing violence. But she keeps her roots by speaking Spanish at home and listening to Latin music.
She is excited to be joining the Ohev Shalom family, especially with her husband in tow.
“I think what I’m excited about is starting a new community with a new spouse and exploring the community as a family together,” she said. “This is a very family-oriented organization. I would love for our family to grow here.”
A little while after she accepted the position, she and her husband returned to Bucks County for a weekend to go apartment hunting. While there, she decided to go to Saturday morning services to see what it looked like from the outside, which they had not planned on doing.
But of course, people started to recognize her.
“We were Jews in the pews and hanging out at services,” she said. “And it was nice because everyone started realizing, ‘That’s the new cantor!’ It was a nice impromptu welcoming.”
She will be leading Shabbat services every weekend, as well as holidays and High Holidays services. To start off incorporating more musical elements to her cantorial duties, she is helping host a Shabbat in Tyler State Park on Aug. 14 featuring a 10-piece band made up of members from the congregation. She said everyone is welcome, even if they are not from Ohev Shalom.
A big goal of hers is to connect with the Jewish community in the greater Philadelphia area as well as the secular community. This event, she hopes, will begin to build that connection right from the beginning and she is excited to get started.
“It’s a new adventure and I really want to take on the challenge. I mean well and I want all of us to succeed together.”