Interfaith choir keeps MLK’s voice alive as bias incidents rise in N.J.

The Camden County-based Unity Choir has become a way to defy what many feel is mounting hatred towards the Black and Jewish communities. (Ximena Conde/WHYY)

The Camden County-based Unity Choir has become a way to defy what many feel is mounting hatred towards the Black and Jewish communities. (Ximena Conde/WHYY)

Seventeen years ago, Anita Hochman co-founded a New Jersey choir that brought a Jewish and a Missionary Baptist congregation together as a way to build community between two cities. But the Unity Choir has increasingly become a way to defy what many feel is mounting hatred towards the Black and Jewish communities.

“We come out every year to support each others’ communities and each others’ faiths because unfortunately, we still have to do this,” said Hochman, who still helps direct the choir. “Unfortunately, Dr. King’s words and Dr. King’s dreams are things we still have to aspire to.”

The singers from Congregation M’kor Shalom in Cherry Hill and Calvary Missionary Baptist Church in Camden — or as members call it, The Mount — hosted their annual concerts celebrating the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr. this weekend.

Rabbi Jennifer Frenkel and Pastor Clifton E. Freeman Jr. opened their houses of worship to host one concert at M’Kor Shalom on Friday and another at Calvary Missionary Baptist church on Sunday.

“Dr. King promoted unity amongst people … ,” said Freeman. “We come together being who we are from all ages, stages, races, religion, what have you … We all love God, so we’re all going to come together and worship God.”

Both performances by roughly 50 singers drew attendees from each congregation, who clapped and danced along to a mixture of psalms and several genres of gospel music.

Members of the Unity Choir perform in Camden. (Ximena Conde/WHYY)

The concerts started as a way to further unify two congregations whose religious leaders got along on the basketball court, and have only grown in audience and participation over the years.

This year’s events took place amid a dramatic rise in bias incidents in New Jersey, and attacks on members of the Jewish faith, including the December shooting at a kosher deli in Jersey City that left four people dead.

“Each year, there seems to be more and more of a reason to come together, to sing together,” said Hochman.

Preliminary data from the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office found 2019 had the largest year-to-year increase — a nearly 66% jump from 2018 — in bias incidents since 1991, when the standards for reporting them were enacted.

“I think it’s really as a result of not having the voice of Dr. King,” said Freeman. “A lot of times when you have the voice, the influential voice that’s still being heard, things aren’t as prevalent.”

Holding the Unity Choir concerts on MLK weekend is a way to keep his voice alive, said Freeman.

Robin Schwartz, a member of M’Kor Shalom, echoed the sentiment. She didn’t need to hear about the 944 bias incidents reported to law enforcement in 2019 to be convinced of the injustices affecting Black and Jewish communities.

For Schwartz, whose teenage years and activism were defined by King’s assassination in 1968, Woodstock and the Vietnam War protests, singing with the unity choir is just another way to object to the injustices of the world.

“I thought back then that things would have changed [by now] and pretty much they’re staying the same, if not worse,” she said.

Schwartz said being part of the Unity Choir for the better part of two decades has only strengthened her resolve to sing and spread “the word of peace” with likeminded people like her.

Despite grim news headlines and statistics, the performance is also a joyful, uplifting experience for people like Denise Dunham, a member of The Mount.

Denise Dunham is a member of The Mount and joined the Unity Choir five years ago. (Ximena Conde/WHYY)

This year’s MLK concerts featured selections from hard gospel and praise music, as well as musical settings of the Psalms, including some sung in Hebrew. Dunham said she works hard every year to get the pronunciation just right — “with a lot of help from the members of M’Kor Shalom.”

“But that’s what also makes it very exciting,” she said. “We mix and we mingle. We make steadfast friends.”

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