Having now returned from our eighth Solidarity through Song mission to Israel and with my feet a little more firmly on the ground, it is now time to put to pen to paper and to set out some of my memories of the mission. I have included as much as I can remember however, the mission is very personal for all of us and I am sure there will be moments that I missed or indeed parts of my diary that you may not have realised even happened!


There was no doubt in all of our minds that we wanted to undertake another Solidarity through Song mission to Israel. Our initial discussions started in June last year and a committee was put together under the leadership of Simon Stone. The aim of the committee was to see if another mission was viable and whether we could raise sufficient funds for the mission. Thanks to the concerted work of the committee and in particular Simon Hochhauser and Michael Stone we managed to raise sufficient funding to allow the mission to go ahead. We are extremely grateful to all our funders but in particular I must place on record our specific thanks to the Ziff family, Youth Aliyah Child Rescue, and Alan Millett, without whom the mission would not have taken place.

We needed an overall aim for the mission and after careful consideration we all agreed that we should concentrate our efforts on the the plight of children in need and at risk. We also decided that we would be base the mission primarily in the North of Israel and in particular, the Galil. Little did we know that war would break out again with indiscriminate rockets showering down on innocent Israeli civilians? Following the end of the war and with the desire to help the people in the South of Israel, we decided to extend the geographical boundaries of the mission to include a visit down to the South.

Serious time and effort went into the preparation of the mission. The committee worked tirelessly not only to ensure that the programme worked logistically but also to ensure that we had plenty of new places to visit.  Of the 13 places we visited, we had only visited 3 previously. Committee members went beyond what could be reasonably expected on them and it is fair to say that Simon Stone did not leave a “stone” unturned! On the ground, we were ably assisted by Gill Lipkin who guaranteed the smooth running of the mission.  

Solidarity through Song was again very privileged to have the unstinting support of Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks and his Lady, Elaine and we were very honoured that they joined us on the mission. The Chief Rabbi remains an incredible source of inspiration to the Choir and his support for what we do is legendary and very much appreciated.

We took an even larger choir to Israel than in previous years. The whole group including our wives was in excess of the number of seats normally available on a standard coach. Thankfully, Gill was able to get us a 60 seater coach which is a rare commodity in Israel. The coach was expertly driven by Moshe.

How do you begin to describe the role of our wonderful chazanim; Rabbi Lionel Rosenfeld, Chazan Shimon Craimer and Chazan Jonny Turgel? The Chazanim (supported respectively by their wives Natalie, Ruthie and Rachel) worked so beautifully together with the result that the mission naturally played to their strongest points and produced musically, one of the very best missions. They were amazing throughout and not only an essential part of the team but a great support to me.

Following the “retirement” Gideon Caplan (son of our long standing chorister Moshe Caplan), we asked Matan Portnoi to join us for the mission. Last August Matan was in my shul in Borehamwood for a barmitzvah. (Matan, who lives in Ra’anana in Israel, was born in England and went on Aliyah some years ago.) That Friday evening and unusually for me, I went to sit on the side of the shul opposite to where I normally sit but near to where Matan was sitting. During Kabbalat Shabbat I heard Matan singing. During Shabbat I spoke to his Mum Emma and said I would like to listen to his voice. The rest, as they say, is history!

Tuesday 12th February

I had arrived in Israel on Sunday evening. I went straight from the airport to rehearse with Matan. Matan had been learning the music with his teacher Avshalom Katz. I also rehearsed with Matan when I was in Israel. My first rehearsal was held at Avshalom’s house last November. In addition to our music, Avshalom asked Matan to sing Kol Dodi, a song composed by Avshalom’s son Shlomo. I forgot about the music until a few weeks before the mission when I asked Shlomo to send me the music. Little did I know that Kol Dodi would prove to be the “mission song”.

Tuesday was a busy day. The sun was shining and it was very warm (very different to Monday which was showery and cold). I waited for the birchonim to arrive at Shoresh and drove up to Nir Etzion. We decided to stay at Nir Etzion as the hotel was better located. In retrospect, it also enabled us to have our day in the South. I then went to meet Simon S in Netanya to check the arrangements for the concert; where we would be standing etc.

After Netanya, I drove to Ra'anana for a rehearsal with Shimon and Lionel. I cannot thank Emma (Matan’s Mum) enough for all the help she has given me and Gabi Hirsch whose house we requisitioned for rehearsals over a number of months. It was good to see Shim and great to hear Lionel and Shim singing together again. After this, I had a rehearsal with Matan which went really well. We all then went to join the choir at Taboon Hamangal for dinner. It was really lovely to see everyone again and there was already a lovely feeling within the group which was to last the whole mission. I think I was a little more relaxed than usual but I am not sure why!

The coach journey to Nir Etzion did not take too long and after the group had checked in and we had some tea and cake, it was time for bed. Tomorrow would be an early start for Solidarity through Song 2013.

Wednesday 13th February

Shacharit was at 6.15 (an early start!). The weather was beautiful and the journey down south was good with one “comfort” stop (well it was a stop. I am not sure how much comfort was involved!).

We arrived in S’derot. This was our third visit to S’derot and we were hoping that this visit would be a little quieter than a previous visit when we were caught in a rocket attack. The statistics for this part of Israel are horrendous with 50%+ of adults suffering some form of trauma with this figure rising to 70%+ for children. As you enter S’derot reality hits you as you see the reinforced bus shelters that act as bomb shelters and in every playground yet another bomb shelter.

There was a mixture of children and elderly people in the hall and the concert started with three songs from a local school choir. It was then time for us. So it had to be BAH……BAH…..BAH….BAH and with those four notes Solidarity through Song 2013 was well on its way…It was not the easiest of starts and I think the first concert of any mission is always harder than others. However, what we can never underestimate is the effect it had on those who were there to listen to us with all the dancing, clapping and singing associated with StS.

After the concert there were the customary rogelach and a vote of thanks from a former Mayor of S’derot. We also were given a talk by Noam Bedein who works for S’derot Media. He appraised us of the current situation in Sderot and the local area and how vulnerable the people of Israel are in this part of the country. This was brought home to us when we visited an observation hill on the edge of a highly residential area of S’derot. Looking into Gaza you could really tell how close S’derot and Ashkelon are to Gaza and how exposed this part of Israel is. Noam spoke about this and how grateful the people are for visitors.

The rocket attacks on southern Israel have not only left their physical scars but the area has also been affected economically. Consequently, people from other parts of Israel have, for years, been coming down to places like S’derot on Thursday and Friday to buy food and other items. This shows solidarity with the people of the south and gives much needed income to the local businesses. We therefore asked Noam to buy us lunch from the local shops which we then paid for.

Our next stop was Kyriat Malachi, a place not normally in the news. It was last year and sadly for all the wrong reasons. Three people were killed in the last war in November. Two of the three victims -- Aharon Smadja and Mira Scharf -- were chabadniks. Along with her husband, Mira had been a Chabad emissary in New Delhi, India, where four years earlier to the day terrorists had killed the Chabad emissaries in Mumbai, Rabbi Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg, as part of a terrorist attack. So, every reason to visit Kyriat Malachi..

Nothing could have prepared us for this visit and the amazing welcome we received when we arrived.  Getting off the coach at the Netzach Yisrael School all we could see was children waving flags and mass of colour in the “spring” sunshine. As we approached the gates there was a big banner “Welcome to Solidarity through Song 2013”. It was extremely moving especially when they presented to us a mezonot challah and asked us to dip a piece in honey and enter the school. In all our years of touring with StS, I cannot remember a more beautiful welcome than this.

Netzach Yisrael is a Meir Panim school and the best way to describe what this school does is to sum up what the Principal of the school, Ayala Hagage, had to say recently regarding her school.

“Without Meir Panim many of my students would not enjoy a decent meal from morning to nighttime. Meir Panim provides meals for children, after school clubs, and food distribution card as well as vocational training for struggling parents.”

The afternoon started with an amazing performance by pupils of the school some dancing; some singing and some playing musical instruments. We then provided them with a classic StS performance. It was amazing and wonderful to see the Chazanim and the choir giving of their all. I did say at the beginning of the day that it was the duty of everyone to take care of their voices and to use them sensibly. All in all they did this but when you are in this type of situation you just want to sing and sing as loud as you can and to enjoy the atmosphere that these wonderful children are helping to create.

Matan was also amazing. He is 11 and it can’t have been easy going to some of the places we went to. As the week went on we learnt a lot more about Matan; the very natural performer he is and how sensitive he became not only to the needs of the group but more importantly to the needs of those he was singing to. It would take its toll on Matan at times during the week but that is to his credit and just goes to show his level of understanding and maturity.

So it was at Kyriat Malachi that Matan sang Kol Dodi with Shimon for the first time. He was phenomenal and sang with such beauty and compassion. Matan was beginning to endear himself (big time) to the group and our audiences. At the end of the concert the children (who had learnt Oseh Shalom) sang along with us in a communal rendition. Amazing!

After the concert Ayala and Goldie talked about their school. How inspiring are these two very special ladies? “No” does not exist in their vocabulary and by continuously thinking outside the box, they overcome their problems. Ayala told us what they were doing at the school and that each child had a story to tell.  I was amazed how they found so much time for music and she told me that music is the natural way to reach the inner depths of these children. Some of them have been taken out of atrocious conditions. We were told some very sad stories and in order to protect the children I will not repeat these stories here.  The teachers help the children overcome their problems not just through education but by showing them their unconditional love. I have asked this question before; how can you teach without showing love for the child you are teaching?

We really did not want to leave this school; a truly inspiring visit which will be remembered by us all for a very long time.

So it was off on the road again going a little further south to Even Shmuel to visit Neve Landy. The visit was organized through our old friend Suzy Lieberman known affectionately (to me at least) as “Little Suzy Belkin”. Neve Landy is a children’s home for very disturbed children sponsored by British Emunah. It has some of the most challenging problems to deal with.

It was an absolutely magical performance and once again Neve Landy provided us with a couple of budding conductors as they did last time we were there. It also provided us with a boy duo who treated us to a rendition of their Oseh Shalom. As always our performance ended with a rousing performance of our Oseh Shalom! Afterwards, I asked one of the children “how long have you been at Neve Landy”? The answer he gave was “I don’t know.. this has always been my home”; so sad and yet at the same time, very telling.

After another offering of rogelach, it was back on the coach for what was a much longer journey to Netanya then we had perhaps bargained for. We did eventually arrive and due the time we arrived and because everyone was hungry (something that can never be ignored!) we headed straight for “Mini Golf” where in record time, we ate and headed for the New Synagogue otherwise known as Macdonalds! There was the normal frantic sound check made slightly less painful by the fact that Simon and I had done our recce the day before.

The concert was raising money for Laniado Hospital and Bet Elazraki and the shul was packed. It was lovely to see so many people; many faces from times gone by and we all seemed to know somebody at the concert. I was really pleased as Daniella had now joined the group. She had met up with her parents who were staying in Tel Aviv.

The Chief Rabbi and his wife Elaine had also joined the mission. The Chief Rabbi spoke to choir in privacy before the concert offering chizuk about the power of song. He told us how the missions had offered him and Elaine some of the most memorable moments during his tenure as Chief Rabbi and how he hoped that we would go out and inspire all those that we come into contact with.

Joanna Benaroch also joined us. She was a great help in our liaison with and for the Chief Rabbi.

The concert was an amazing success and a great evening was had by all. It was a real Shabbaton mix of music but leaving people wanting more and with everyone going home with a smile on their face. We premiered Ezk’ra with Shimon and Jonny which was very moving and we also premiered Uvshofar Gadol with Lionel. This was a real achievement as the choir had spent weeks in preparation learning this music. It had not been an easy learn but the performance was excellent on the night and both Ezk’ra and Uvshofar Gadol offered the choir a helping hand into the future.

At the rehearsal with Matan on Tuesday, I suggested that as his teacher Avshalom Katz would be at the concert, Matan should introduce Kol Dodi and dedicate it especially to Avshalom. Matan did this and sang magnificently. This evening we began to see what Matan was really made of and how he is a consummate performer. Tonight Matan came of age!

After the concert there was a reception with food provided by the girls at Beit Elazraki. We had a chance to speak to people and renew old acquaintances.

(The WAG’s had set up a stall and sold loads of our c’d’s)

It was then back on the coach to Nir Etzion where we had tea and cake; davened Ma’ariv and then we were off to bed. It was a very long day but despite this and despite it being hard at times, the day lived up to all expectations.  

Thursday 14th February

We had a slight lie in today and more relaxing breakfast. The weather turned a little duller but it remained warm. We davened Shacharit in the hotel’s shul

Our first stop today was Hatzor Haglilit. When we first had discussions with Youth Aliya Child Rescue they mentioned the opening of their new “Mechina” facility in Hatzor and how they would like us to be part of the opening. Hatzor is part of the Yemin Orde school network that provides love and protection for children at risk in Israel. Their newest facility in Hatzor was being opened today and many of the international donors were present.

In true Israeli fashion there were plenty of speeches but actually they were all very interesting especially those speeches from some of the old students of Yemin Orde who spoke about their wonderful experiences and what they are now doing. One was a MK and another, a colonel in the army. The morning started with a speech from Yitschak Rabin’s sister which was very inspiring. Youth Aliyah had gone to trouble of arranging for an interpreter and we all had earphones to listen to the speeches in English. We sang four numbers in between the speeches and in fact I decided to change one of the songs to Kol Dodi as Matan and Shimon sang it so well. There was also dancing from an Ethiopian group of boys which was amazing.

For Daniella and me, it was lovely to see our old family friends Jonny and Shulamit and Jonny’s sister Marti who had travelled from neighbouring kibbutzim to be with us.

Musically the most moving moment was Avinu Shebashamayim. You really felt the words of this t’fila and its meaning truly resounded in Hatzor with current and former students joining in. However, the real highlight was the dedication of a Sefer Torah to Chaim Peri and his speech that followed. You meet many incredible people in Israel but Chaim must rank at the top. What a truly inspiring and dedicated man he is. Each child treats him as a father (no matter what age) and he treats them as you would a son or daughter. 

Unfortunately, as it invariably happens, things overran and there was not a chance to sing and dance with the students. Not all was lost as many would be coming to Yemin Orde on Motsa’ay Shabbat. We did however, have a lovely lunch and after that we were back on the coach heading for Haifa.

Our coach journeys are always good humoured. The time is generally spent rehearsing, sleeping, sleeping and rehearsing (at the same time) or generally misbehaving (depending where you are sitting on the coach).  As always, water accumulated on the back seat and for some reason during our travels there was a very unpleasant aroma in the back few rows of the coach. No one could quite put their finger on it!

We arrived at the Bet Horim in Haifa where the audience were just coming into the room. I was introduced to Geoff Collins. He told me that he was originally from Sunderland. I remembered his family and when he asked my family name I told him it was “Levey”. He said that the only “Levey” family he remembered were the dance teachers. I said that was my family. He said he remembered my grandparents and that my grandma was a special and beautiful lady. I watched his face when I introduced my Adon Olam (which I had written in memory of Grandma). He was probably the only person we sang to in Israel who actually remembered her and as I mentioned her name he was nodding his head in approval.  

The concert included our Yiddish medley which always goes down well (or at least those bits which were easily recognisable!). Daniella told me that there was a lady sitting behind her who carers had said showed no reaction to anything. When the Yiddish medley started she started to clap a little, move her legs and even say a few words. The nurses simply could not believe what had happened. Matan was also growing in confidence taking the microphone during Oseh Shalom.

Lionel’s bracha to the extended audience of longevity was not so overwhelmingly received (!) but apart from that, it was another lovely visit. We were then back on the coach and heading for Bet Halochem in Haifa.

Along with the Netanya concert the night before, this concert was arranged by Frank Weinberg with Limor the centre manager. Frank along with Harvey and Alan Koch are involved in the British Friends of the Israel War Disabled (Bet Halochem UK) and every year arrange for wounded soldiers to come to Britain for a holiday. In 2010 we sang at the Tel Aviv branch of Bet Halochem and Frank arranged for us to visit the Haifa branch.

Visiting Bet Halochem is always a very moving experience. Whilst the concert started off quite reserved, once we had won the confidence of our audience, we knew it would be a great evening, which it was. It was very emotional for many in the audience and you just have to sometimes take a step back and marvel at the power of music.

At the end of the concert presentations were made and one in particular was made to Daniella which was a lovely gesture (despite her embarrassment!). Just before we were about to leave the stage a man shouted out that he wanted Adon Olam.  Never wanting to miss an opportunity we sang Chitman’s Adon Olam. We had completely misjudged the intensity of this man’s request for as he cried and sang his way through the song, so did we. It was a lovely moment.

On the coach going back Lionel told us that one lady had told him that her son had been killed in the second Lebanon War. She went on to say that she had never been happy since that time but tonight had brought real simcha “right to the bottom of her heart. What a lovely thing to say.  In true fashion Matan wanted to know why the expression was not “from the heart of her bottom”. It was a magical moment and only then were we able to relax after what had been another very tiring, long and emotional day.

Back at the hotel we davened and ate more tea, coffee and cake.

Friday 15th February

Once again it was an early start with davening and breakfast and then on the coach for our visit to the Rambam Hospital in Haifa. Our first visit to Rambam had been in 2004 and we had wanted to return firstly due to the fact that they cared for Marc Weinberg z”l whilst he was being treated for cancer and also due to the fact that the Chief Rabbi had an existing relationship with the hospital.

We were met by Professor Beyar, Dr Golan, P’nina and Abigail. They introduced us to the work of the hospital and how they serve the whole of the northern region. They explained their facilities especially in the event of war and how they are in the forefront of research into cancer related diseases. It was a fascinating insight into the running of the hospital. (The hospital is undergoing a major reconstruction including turning an underground car park into a fully functioning hospital with 2,000 beds for use in case of rocket attack).

We then sang in the lobby before going up to the children’s ward where we sang to the children, parents and staff. There was one beautiful little girl with her Mum. Her mum told us that she was a Druze from Gaza and that her daughter was being cared for at Rambam. She said after all “we are all children of G-d”. How inspiring is that. But the story is much bigger. As we have seen time and time again this is a familiar story when it comes to health care in Israel. In Laniado in 2003 we saw how the chief Doctor looking after people after the Park Hotel bomb was an Iraqi Muslim; at Soroka in Be’er Sheva where they were treating many Arab patients from Gaza; at Hadassah Ein Kerem where a high proportion of children in the oncology ward came from the West Bank – so tell the world about this and how non-judgmental their systems are.

After this we split into two groups in order to go into the wards. Group A with Lionel and Jonny and lead by Simon S went to the geriatric ward and my group, Group B with Shimon and Matan went to the cardiac ward. Simon’s group sang to a lady that was terminally ill. When Jonny finished singing Ein Keloheinu to her she blew him a kiss and said “amen”. What made this even more remarkable was that this lady had shown little or no sign of life for weeks and now as if her final farewell she mustered up the energy to do this; a very special moment for those who were there including the lady’s daughter and granddaughter. They also had a funny moment when they were singing to one patient. He told them that he was not Israeli but came from Australia. This prompted an impromptu chorus of Waltzing Matilda”!

After a group photograph it was back on the coach. I should really say something about our uniform which has been the subject (at times) of much heated debate not just from choristers but WAGs as well. After much deliberation and patience and hard work by Julian, we decided to change the blue polo shirt for a more sedate short sleeved white shirt with the “Shabbaton” logo. This proved to be very popular and my thanks to Julian for his perseverance.

We later arrived at the Ahava Village for Children and Youth in Kyriat Bialik and nothing but nothing could have prepared us for what happened over the next 90 minutes. We were escorted into a large hall with a stage all set up with microphones and sound system. (We always bring our own keyboard which we hire in Israel.) We were introduced to Ahava by Yoav Epelboim who is one of the most inspiring people I have ever had the privilege to come into contact with. To understand Ahava you need to understand a little about its history and what it is currently doing.

Ahava began educational and therapeutic work with Jewish children over 80 years ago in Berlin. Since then, it has helped thousands of children and youth in Israel. Ahava is a residential center for children ages 6-18 coming from high-risk home situations. Comprised of apartments, educational facilities and leisure areas, the campus is home to 200 children, who receive personalised care, support and training. Ahava also plays a leading role integrating these children and youth into Israeli society to be useful citizens leading fulfilling lives.

This frankly, only scratches the surface. What Yoav told us was so beautiful and moving. One thing he said really moved me. He said

“I tell my staff you can be modest about your clothes, modest about your car, modest about your home but when it comes to saving children from harm, I want you to tell the world what we are doing. There is no such thing as modesty when it comes to saving children”.

He also told us we have been given two hands; one to say “no” and to teach children how to live with one and other, and the other to show love and how much you care. Whilst I have heard this before you can certainly understand this more at Ahava.

When we arrived in the hall the children were very reserved and seemed as if they did not want to join in. Daniella told me there was a girl who was shaking when she came in. As the music started she slowly began tapping her fingers; then smiling a little; then a few words and by the end she was on the stage dancing with us. The concert began with a performance by a young girl who was celebrating her birthday and then we offered our Shabbaton StS special. Matan sang to great applause and appreciation from the audience. It was an amazing atmosphere and by the end we were all emotionally drained. I kept on asking myself “who would want to harm these beautiful children?” It was all a bit too much and very tearful for many of us. Matan especially showed a real sensitivity and it was only when we were back on the coach that Emma told me how much he had been affected by what he had seen and how sad that made him feel.

Afterwards, we went to see some of the accommodation. I spoke to Yael and Benjy and blessed them before Shabbat. This was not easy!  It was then back on the coach for a pizza lunch. As we got on the road, the CR took the microphone. He told us that one of the carers had come up to him and said “matim matim” which Matan was quick to translate as “amazing..amazing”. She then went on to tell the Chief Rabbi that for years she had not been lighting Shabbat candles, however, after today, she would definitely light them tonight.

Ahava certainly lived up to its name. In 10 years of StS this ranks as one of the very best. We arrived back at Nir Etzion with a few hours spare before rehearsals and Shabbat.

I can honestly say that this Shabbat at Nir Etzion was one of my favourites and it proved to be a perfect mix of people. John Corre our Shabbat partner brought around 50 people and on top of that there were family and friends who came for Shabbat. The youth contingent was made up of the Lavi 18 group (The first time we did this back in 2003 it was Lavi Shalosh!), FZY year coursers and a group from Tribe on their gap year. The blend was perfect as was Shabbat.

At the rehearsal there was the normal re-arranging of the shul furniture which comes to be expected and therefore we did not have a lot of time for the rehearsal but we are used to this. Additionally, Jonny wanted to stand down from davening kabbalat Shabbat and ma’ariv as his voice was tired and he would struggle on the top notes. Lionel stepped in at the 11th hour. When the Lavi students came into shul they were sitting at the back but I really wanted them to be part of the action. So we brought them forward and they really involved themselves. Well done Lavi 18!

It was an incredible atmosphere for a number of reasons; Lionel who had been on great form all week davened beautifully; the Chief Rabbi gave an impassioned drasha before maariv and the crowd really reacted to the davening with plenty of dancing; singing, kavana and passion. L’cha dodi with all the boys around Lionel and singing is an abiding memory.

After davening, we went to the dining hall and had lovely meal. The food was excellent and there was plenty of it. During the meal the choir sang Duniewski’s V’sham’ru with Shimon, Mochel Avonot with Jonny and Matan and then we finished off with Oseh Shalom.

There followed two evening programmes. We were joined over Shabbat by Ambassador Yehuda Avner and his wife Mimi (who were celebrating their 60th Wedding Anniversary) and Ambassador Mark Sofer. The two ambassadors were engaged in discussion about the role that Brits had played historically and would play in the future in determining the direction of the State of Israel. This was chaired by Simon Hochhauser.

I ran a programme for the youth groups. My idea was that two people from each group would speak about their experiences in Israel and I would interweave this with some personal experience and songs. The session worked really well and it proved to be a good programme. By the end of this session I was exhausted. Daniella and I had both found today very emotional for various reasons but there was no doubt that StS 2013 was living up to all expectations.

Shabbat 16th February 

The weather had deteriorated a little with sun and showers but this really did not affect us. Breakfast was followed by a short rehearsal and then t’fila. Lionel davened Shacharit, and later Shimon davened Musaf. Both davened beautifully and the choir were on top form. Many of the people who had previously been on a mission with us commented how well the choir were singing and that it was the best ever. There were also rave reviews for our new Ein Kamocha and Kedusha. Avinu Shebashamayim was particularly moving with everyone in the congregation joining in.

The Chief Rabbi then delivered an amazing drasha. I am saying this second hand as I went to run a programme with Lavi 18 but on all accounts it was incredibly inspiring.

I spoke to Lavi 18 about the power of music and they were a really active and attentive group who were also very well behaved. One of the best Lavi groups I have worked with over the years. I have refrained from calling them the JFS group as there was one student from King David in Liverpool called Finlay who contributed well in all the discussions. I introduced him to Stephen Ison (a Scouser!). I am not sure what they were talking about but they seemed to understand each other!

It was then time for the inauguration of the Lavi 18 Choir. Some of them knew Oseh Shalom already and those who did not quickly learnt it. Their first performance would be at lunch. We then had some time before lunch so I sat outside and I chattered to Matan’s twin brother Dovid and his sister Talya. I also listened to Ori Rosenfeld (Gidon’s son) sing. Ori has a lovely voice and it was lovely to listen to him sing.

In my notes that I wrote up on the plane, it simply says “lunch was legendary”! Lionel had all of his children and grandchildren (except for Danny and his family) with him and we all sang our way through lunch. It was wonderful. This was followed by the combined voices of Shabbaton, The Lavi 18 Choir, Tribe FZY Ramatayim members, Kol Simcha ladies choir members (oy!), Ambassadors Avner and Sofer and my nephew and niece Gideon and Sophie in a rousing arrangement of Oseh Shalom. Awesome!

(During the afternoon a Corre-ite, David Greenberg gave a fascinating lecture)

Mincha followed by Se’udah Shlishit was followed by Ma’ariv. I was then charged with the honour of presenting the Chief Rabbi with a piece of art which depicted Psalm 145 (“Ashrei”) in recognition of the Chief Rabbi’s inspiration and unstinting support for the choir. I quoted the the pasuk “Dor lador y’shabach maasecha ugvuratech yagidoo” and said that the Chief Rabbi’s inspiration and teachings would not just influence the current generation but as was evident over Shabbat many future generations. This was gratefully appreciated by the Chief Rabbi and we ended with a choral havdalah lead by Shimon and Jonny. We had a group photograph taken and then it was a rush to get ready for the next venue – Yemin Orde.

We had suggested to Youth Aliyah that as we were so close to Yemin Orde that we should do a programme for them on Motsa’ay Shabbat. YA agreed to this and offered to bus children in from local YO facilities. The atmosphere was electric. There were 200 kids together with our group, the international donors who were still in Israel from the Hatzor event and friends and family who had been with us over Shabbat.

The concert began with a song from choirs for each of the 5 YACR facilities and this was followed by a riotous concert. It was a great atmosphere and the concert ended with a boisterous (not entirely accurate adjective to describe the energy that was put into this!) version of Oseh Shalom. It was for me, one of the most memorable performances of the song; a memory that will live on for ever.

It was then time to say goodbye to many people and in particular Matan’s family who were driving back to Ra’anana. Talya, Matan’s sister told me never to give up what we were all doing as it is so wonderful and important.

Back at the hotel it was a special reception for the mother/grandmother/great grandmother of the choir Rene Stone. She has been with us through thick and thin and thank G-d she was well enough to be with us this time. She was presented with a birthday cake (but I am still not entirely sure when her actual birthday is)! It was then down to the Shabbaton Ladies (and Harris!) to display their talents with a song written by Angela Taylor to the tune “Do you hear the people sing”. They were conducted by their two resident conductors; firstly Maestra Daniella Levey who had superb control and then the more exuberant Maestra Marilyn Turgel who displayed some leg movements which she said were reminiscent of another high spirited conductor – not sure who she means!

So the end of another crazy and busy day and after packing I was very pleased to see my pillow.

Sunday 17th February

Well the last day of the mission. I so wanted this day to be the highlight of the mission and we were not to be disappointed.

It was another early start with t’fila and breakfast and then the loading the cases onto the correct coach (never easy!) and then on our way to Laniado. On the way we suddenly realised that we had left the keyboard in Nir Etzion! Gill quickly made arrangements for it to be transported down.

On the coach a few people spoke about the mission and the overall effect it had on them and the group. I offered a few words of thanks. I am always remiss in saying thank you or that the choir and chazanim did well. It is a real flaw on my part and I never really say how brilliant the group is. Here was an opportunity just to say thank you, and to comment on how the group is so amazing, had sang brilliantly, and how it is so good at adapting to its surroundings. I wanted to say more but decided that it was all getting a bit to tearful to continue.

Shimon spoke about how the chazanim had really worked well together and how he thought that the chazanim and choir had worked brilliantly as a team – the best ever. He hit the nail on the head and this was endorsed by Stephen Ison who spoke beautifully about the mission and Harvey who offered his thanks to all those who were involved in the mission.

We arrived at Laniado and the weather once again was lovely. What was strange for Daniella and I was that we were performing in the same building where Mam had been when she broke her hip 5 years ago.

We were met by Gila Shorrick who had looked after us so well when we first went to visit Laniado in 2003. The group then split up into two with Simon’s group going with Shimon and Matan and with my group with Lionel and Jonny, going to the geriatric ward. This was not an easy ward to sing in but it was certainly appreciated. Lionel was quizzed about his tsit tsit and when he showed them to the patient his response was “Ach….you call this tsit tsit!!” Well it was all in a day’s work!! We then went to meet the other group in the children’s ward where we sang all together with our arms around each other’s shoulders. We were exhausted and yet we were still inspired. After this, we returned to the vestibule where we performed for all those who wanted to listen. I dedicated Kol Dodi to my Mum in gratitude for all that Laniado did for her.

What I like about this type of singing is that you start off by singing to yourself and within a few seconds you attract people’s attention that they then come and listen and join in. Whilst it is a transient audience it is lovely to see people’s faces on the ground; going up the stairs and on the balconies above. The audience was a mixture of doctors; nurses, patients staff and visitors. Laniado did us proud and it was lovely to return after 10 years.

It was then a short journey to Bet Elazraki. Once again, nothing could have prepared us for what happened in the next two hours. If there was ever a good place to end the mission, we had found it in Bet Elazraki.

I had been introduced to its Menahel, Yehuda Kohn at the Netanya concert. Yehuda and his wife are amazing people. Originally from Venezuela, they came to Israel to look after a few foster children. Bet Elazraki was founded in 1969 to help children in great distress. At that time, it cared for 40 children. Now it cares for 240 children all who have found a safe haven – a place they call home. These children live at Bet Elazraki as their parents are unable to look after them due to violence in the family, drug and alcohol abuse, abandonment, mental illness or a combination of all or some of the above. 

Yehuda introduced his talk by saying “Welcome to my home”. Not welcome to his “children’s home” but “my home” as if to say this is where I live with all of my children”. He told us about the history of the home and what it had done since its establishment.  He told us what his ideals are for his children and how he wanted each one to be able to stand on their own two feet, free to go out into the world able to build a secure future for themselves. There is so much more to say about this remarkable man but space does not permit. What is incredibly about Yehuda is that every one of these children is like a son and daughter to him. He takes them through every life cycle event even though they may have left the home years before. After he spoke, we watched a very moving presentation which left many of us in tears.

As we went into lunch the group was very subdued and I think we had all been quite stunned by what we had just been told. I have never seen the group react this way to the extent that we really felt a little guilty eating the sumptuous lunch they had prepared for us. So we offered to pay for the lunch and told Yehuda. What he then said was something quite remarkable. He said “if you were in an orphanage I would expect you to feel this way. However, you are in my home and if I came to eat at your home would you expect me to pay for my meal??” This really summed up Yehuda. The Choir offered instead to make a donation to the home (which covered the cost of the meal) and individual choristers felt that they wanted to donate personally to the home.

We made our way to their main hall. Children had especially been brought back from school early and slowly the hall filled. The Chief Rabbi spoke beautifully to the children and a plaque was unveiled honouring the Chief Rabbi and the Shabbaton Choir.

The concert began with a performance by the Bet Elazraki choir which was simply sublime. They ended with K’shehalev bocheh which was so beautiful and very emotional. (The older children had been dancing with the younger kids just like a huge loving family)

So we were to finish Solidarity though Song 2013 where we had began five long days earlier with BAH…..BAH..BAH…BAH we offered a concert which we will all remember for along time The “Shimon Sings” spot was incredibly emotional which he pitched exactly right by ending with some slow numbers; Im Eshkachaich, V’hi Sh’am’da and V’zakeini. We ended with Oseh Shalom with all of us in a circle, all with our arms around another and just singing and singing our hearts out. It was undoubtedly, the highlight of the tour.

We were due to go to Independence Hall in Tel Aviv but I suggested to the lads that we should not go. We could not possibly top the atmosphere at Bet Elazraki and as the weather was good we should go down to the coast and daven mincha in the amphitheatre on Netanya beach, where the Chief Rabbi could say a few words. As we were singing Ashrei I caught the Chief Rabbi’s eye and we both instinctively gave a huge grin which seemed to sum up the last 22 years. After mincha the Chief Rabbi offered us some lovely thoughts as Solidarity through Song 2013 came to an end.

Before we got back onto the coach we said goodbye to some of the choristers who were not returning to the UK with the main group and of course to our dear Matan and his Mum, Emma. As I said to Matan in an email:

“As you can imagine, having conducted the choir for over 22 years I have seen boy soloists come and go. Some leave their mark and others will just be history. The way you interacted with the chazanim and choir ensured your place not just in the history of the choir but as someone who has already left an indelible mark on everyone you have come into contact with. For me the greatest pleasure was to see you doing what you do so best and that is transforming a room of people with your beautiful singing and interpretation of the music”.

It was really hard to say goodbye.

And Finally…

Was it the best? It is not a question that we should be asking or indeed need to ask any more. What we need to ask is did it achieve what we wanted it to do; did it realise its full potential; did it surpass our modest ideals and would we do another mission? The answer to all of these questions has to be the same answer which is of course “yes”; so as long as Lionel, Shimon and Jonny  can generate that special energy they offer us; so long as we have that simple ideal which is to bring cheer through our music; so long as we can continue to be inspired by the Chief Rabbi and all those wonderful people we meet on our journeys in Israel and so long as our very generous funders are able to share in all of these ideals and assist us. 

And which was the best visit? Well what do I mean by that? Which visit had the most effect on those we were singing to? Or which visit had more of an effect on us? Sometimes it is difficult to separate the two and just because it was good for us does not mean it was good for those coming to hear us and of course vice versa. It is an impossible question to answer because how do you compare what we set out to do in Netanya to what we set out to do at Bet Halochem in Haifa? How do you compare Neve Landy to Hatzor, Yemin Orde to Ahava or to Bet Elazraki?  Where do you begin?  

There are many children in the hall at Bet Elazraki. There is a young boy, I do not know his name but I invited him to join us in the dancing. I must have asked him three or four times and eventually after much badgering he joined me. But despite all the singing and dancing and high excitement this young lad could not smile. At the end, when we were all singing Oseh Shalom and we had our arms around each other’s shoulders we caught each other’s eye and then and only then did he offer a small but beautiful smile. That is Solidarity though Song.

Stephen Levey

5th March 2013