Cantor Michael Shochet
Tell us more about your background. Where did you grow up? What kind of Jewish background did you come from?
I grew up in a small Reform congregation in the suburbs of Baltimore that had a rabbi and a soloist whom we called the cantor. That was really a place that was a second home to me. My family was very involved. My mother taught confirmation class with the rabbi, my father was on the board during my time growing up there and I was very enamored with the cantor. After college I came back to the congregation as an adult member and eventually was on the Board of Directors.
I was also involved in starting volunteer choir.
You became a cantor by way of being a police officer. Explain.
Actually, my first full time job was working as a television news reporter for Baltimore’s NBC station. I went to college specifically for tv news and I got this great job right out of college right in Baltimore, which is a major market. A lot of what I did as a tv news reporter involved the police and fire stories. While chasing those stories I developed some good relationships with Baltimore city policemen.
While I loved and always had an interest in police work, I never saw it as a potential profession for me. But over the next few years, I starting having some second thoughts about tv news, especially the ethics involved in news reporting. For example, one time I covered a story about a teenager who killed his girlfriend and then killed himself. I went out to the neighborhood and all the news units were out there interviewing people, including the family. I knocked on the door and the family said, “We don't want to talk,” and I said fine and I did a story without talking to the family. But when I went back to the newsroom my managing editor was quite upset that I didn’t get the interview with the family while other news reporters at the scene had gotten some interviews with the family.
With tv news the whole point is to try to get that microphone in someone’s face and find out how they feel. I disagreed with that approach. I started to feel disillusioned. Also if I wanted to go further in tv news I would probably have to go to another city and I didn’t want to leave my family. I started questioning what I wanted to do. Since I enjoyed the relationships I had with other police officers, I thought perhaps one career I might want to go into was as the public information commissioner for Baltimore’s city police department. I found out in order to do that job I would have to go to the police academy. I thought long and hard about it and despite the wishes of my circle of family and friends who told me I would be crazy to give up tv to be a police officer, I decided to take the plunge.
Tell us more about your police work and how it led to the cantorate.
After I went through the Baltimore City Police Academy, I was out on the streets for about a year. Most people thought I was crazy and I probably was to do that but I really loved it. I loved being on the street. I loved helping people. As a reporter I stood in the background, but as a police officer I could actually do something and make a difference in people’s lives and in the world.
While I was a police officer I was still involved in my synagogue. I continued to direct the choir and I would come to rehearsals in my police uniform. I always kept my synagogue life and Jewish music as important parts of who I was.
Then in august 1988 I was involved in a shooting. A bunch of us were called out to the scene and my partner ended up getting shot in the shoulder. It was a really traumatic incident for all of us. Baltimore is one of the most dangerous cities to work in as a police officer, especially the Eastern district where I was working.
After the shooting I started trying to decide what I wanted to do with my life. I couldn't get into public information because at that time there was no opening. I was now a patrol officer and I didn't have access to the police commissioner anymore. The choice was staying on the street or leaving the department.
I went back to tv for a while and I consulted my rabbi who I was close with. He said to me: what makes you happy is everything you have been doing all these years at the synagogue. You should be a rabbi or a cantor. I didn’t see myself as a scholarly figure so I ruled out being a rabbi. Music was my connection to my synagogue, but I didn’t have any formal training so he encouraged me to think about it. I thought about it and realized that being a cantor was something I could do that would bring a lot of meaning and importance to my life.
I sought out an HUC cantor then at Baltimore Hebrew named Samuel Berman (z”l). He took me under his wing. It was Cantor Berman who helped me understand what being a full-time cantor and clergy was about. He hired me to be a soloist there and he mentored me as I applied for cantorial school. It took me two years to get some additional music training to get into the school. I started my studies in 1990.
For my master’s project I combined my cantorial training with my tv background and produced a tv documentary on the American cantorate that aired on PBS stations. After I was invested in 1994, my first congregation was in New Orleans. After getting my feet wet for a couple of years, I sought out the police department to be a chaplain. On my first day sworn in as a chaplain in New Orleans I got a call that a police officer was killed: Would I come speak to family?
Later, I got into chaplaincy in a more formal way through credentialing. Over the years I have been involved in a number major events, such as 9-11 at the Pentagon, various police shootings and killings, and in 2003 I became a chaplain with FBI. My current role as Chaplain of Northern Virginia includes being the head of the chaplain groups run by the council of governments of multi groups in the Maryland and Virginia areas. I served as chair of this committee for five years. While I was the chair I was asked to be the chaplain for the CIA, for which I had to give up my FBI chaplaincy. I’m also the head of the Fairfax County Police Chaplaincy. I am the only Jewish chaplain at the CIA.
You are the first recipient of the inaugural Ba’al Chazon for Vision Award recognizing “cantorial vision both within and beyond the pulpit” for your work as a chaplain. Tell us more.
It’s been great. I’ve been doing this for over 20 years and for me it’s been really important. I’ve helped a lot of police officers over the year through trauma in a way I was not helped when I was in a shooting back in the 80s. I have developed some really great relationships and have been able to build morale and to be a presence in their lives. That is a really meaningful part of who I am and what I do. In the CIA, I have helped some of our security people overseas who have experienced some horrendous events. Some of the fun things I’ve done include teaching the director of the CIA how to light Hanukah candles and sing Ma’Otzur.
Police brutality has been in the news a lot lately and has dampened the image of police officers.
It’s a shame what’s going on around our country with some of these shootings connected with race relations from police against citizens and vice versa. That said, being a police officer is a really tough job. You have to make life and death decisions instantaneously and some police officers make mistakes.
I want officers to know that I’m there for them. I teach two classes in the police academy every year. One class is on helping officers help take care of their spirit so they can lead successful, healthy lives when they see all this terrible stuff on the street. The other class helps police officers to help make death notifications.
One of the benefits of what I’ve been doing is that I’m teaching people what a cantor is. We live in a non Jewish world, especially in Northern Virginia, and most people doesn’t know what cantors are.
You’ve been an active member and have assumed leadership positions for both the ACC and the Reform movement. Why is the ACC important to you? Why is being a leader so important to you?
The ACC is the voice of the Reform American cantorate and I feel very strongly that our profession needs a voice and is something that people need to know about. Cantors need to be recognized as clergy members and purveyors of Jewish music. Working with the ACC all these years has felt really good. In my 20 some years of being a cantor, I’ve seen our profession grow so much in terms of being embraced by the rest of the Reform movement and in developing strong relationships with our rabbinic partners. Most of that has to do with the work of the ACC.
Being a leader is who I am as a person. I like to lead. I want to help train new cantors. That’s why having additional cantors in my congregation is really important to me. We’ve had both students and part-time cantors. There are also two other positions in our congregation being served by other cantors and one of our rabbis is also a cantor. So that means our congregation has four cantors plus some retired ACC members. I love being surrounded by cantors. I love giving other people the opportunity to share in the life of our congregation and I want to continue to mentor and help build the cantorate.
Cantor Michael Shochet is Senior Cantor at Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, VA.