SOLIDARITY THROUGH SONG 2011

Background

The decision as to whether we go to Israel on a 2011 Solidarity through Song mission was not lightly taken. Whilst we all wanted another mission, there were some serious reservations that had to be considered. Having previously been on six amazing missions there was a feeling that perhaps the idea had run its course; that the original aim of the mission had ceased to be as important; and that the funding would not be (or should not be made) available. We were right to have these doubts but in the end, once we decided that in principle that we should run with the idea, it made us even more determined to make the mission work.

We needed an overall aim for the mission and after careful consideration we all agreed that the plight of children in need, whether they be under privileged, have learning difficulties, be disabled or just on need of cheering up should be the central feature of the mission. We also decided that we would be base the mission primarily in Jerusalem and within the Tel Aviv/Jerusalem corridor.

Thanks to Peter Sheldon, we soon had sufficient funding to enable us to start the initial planning but we could not finalise anything until financial support had been assured. Funding was eventually realised and we were then able to start fully preparing for the tour. We are extremely grateful to all our funders but in particular I must place on record our specific thanks to the Ziff family, The Trustees of the Dorset Foundation, Alan Millett, and Alan Tapnak.

Serious time and effort goes into the preparation of the mission. This year more than ever 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. Often, committee members were asked to go beyond what could be reasonably expected on them. On the ground we were ably assisted by Gill and Arlene both of whom guaranteed the smooth running of the mission.  

Solidarity through song is 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 once again on the mission. The Chief Rabbi remains an incredible source of inspiration to the Choir and his support for what we do is legendary. In his year of sorrow we wish him arichat yamim.

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 we had available on the coach and I still do not know quite how we managed it - but we did!

Where would we be without our wonderful chazanim; Rabbi Lionel Rosenfeld, Chazan Shimon Craimer and Chazan Jonny Turgel. Their amazing voices and personalities offer a unique blend so much so that they compliment each other in every way. I am extremely fortunate to have them as friend and colleagues.

Following the “retirement” of Eli Baigel who as our boy soloist had been on the three previous missions, we invited two boy soloists to join us this year. They were Natanel Rubin and Gideon Caplan (son of our long standing chorister Moshe Caplan). Gideon and Natanel sang beautifully and added to the “Shabbaton Sound”.

Tuesday 1st March

I had arrived in Israel on Monday morning in preparation for the mission. On Tuesday afternoon I went with Peter Sheldon to visit The Hassadna Music Conservatory in the German Colony in Jerusalem.  As soon as you walk in there is excitement and anticipation in the air. From each room you can hear the sounds of music whether it is being played or sang. We were met by Lena Nemirovsky the Director of Hassadna. Hassadna offers a unique programme called “From Risk to Opportunity” This programme offers underprivileged and disabled children the opportunity to reach their musical potential. Our concert on Wednesday evening was in aid of this programme.

Whilst Peter had told me a lot about the Conservatory I had not expected to be so moved by the wonderful performances that I was fortunate to hear.  To watch Yotam (who suffers from cerebral palsy) play the piano (in a trio with a flautist and violinist) but using only one finger was very humbling. To hear Yotam interact with the other musicians and then to see his smile at the end of the performance was a privilege. Any teachers dream is to help a child reach his or her potential (and perhaps to exceed that potential at times).  How much more so when it is least expected of a child or where a child would not ordinarily have had the opportunity to achieve that potential.

One of the performances was by a very talented pianist, 17 year old Elisha who performed Chopin’s Nocture No. 4 in F major. It was an incredible show of talent from a  young boy.  I was really pleased that Elisha would be accompanying us at the concert where he would play Esa Ainy and Ilan Ilan.

After Hassadna it was back to the hotel for a rehearsal with Lionel and Shimon. It was good to be back together again. Shimon sang my new song - Hayom Katser about which I will mention more later in the diary. The rest of the group soon arrived and we had dinner in the hotel before an early night.

Wednesday 2nd March

Wednesday started early with t’fila and breakfast followed by a rehearsal and a briefing to the group. I think much of the stress of the last few months caught up with me and whilst I wanted to say quite a lot to the group, the moment caught me by surprise and I simply was unable to do so. I asked Lionel to speak and to explain that whilst this is our 7th mission, this is a new mission with new people to sing to. It therefore, has to be fresh and exciting and full of enthusiasm. It was an emotional moment and frankly too much to handle!

So it was on the coach and off to Aleh. The sky was blue, the sun was shining and the weather was glorious. We have previously visited Aleh in Ofakim in the south of Israel and were so moved by our visit that we wanted to visit their facility in Jerusalem. We were met by Yoni Sherizen. Yoni told us a little about Aleh and in particular the Jerusalem facility. We were then honoured with a talk by Major General Dror Almog who had specially changed his plans to be with us when he heard we were coming to Aleh. Whilst we have heard M G Almog speak before he never fails to inspire. He told us about his son Eran (who sadly died in 2007) and although his son never spoke “he could not even say “Abba”” he remains as the Major General said “my greatest professor in life”. It was a beautiful moment and perfect introduction to our concert which took place out in the courtyard.

Aleh caters for the most severely disabled children and young adults in Israel. What is fascinating about Aleh is that you never quite know how the music affects those we are singing to. Yoni told us afterwards that a young boy who had never been known to smile let a lone laugh did so for the first time when we were singing…so who knows?     

From Aleh we went to ICELP which is one of the top facilities in the world catering for the needs of autistic children. It was founded by Professor Reuven Feuerstein who will be 90 this year. Professor Feuerstein is a world authority on autism and its treatment. When the Professor heard that we were coming to perform for the children, he especially came to the institute to address us. It was a fascinating talk and again a perfect introduction to the concert. After Professor Feuerstein spoke I introduced Daniella to him and he knew all about Binoh where Daniella works and where they use some of the Feuerstein techniques.

This concert took place in the lecture theatre. We sang a few songs and then it was the turn of 5 of the children at the institute to perform for us. It was a really special experience and in particular Chaya Mushka a Downs Syndrome young lady kept us very well entertained. We then sang a few more songs with the dancing during the “Shimon Sings” spot.

After ICELP we were back on the coach this time to Shalva on the edge of the Jerusalem Forest. Shalva also caters for a mixture of disabled children and young adults. We were introduced to Shalva by Andrea a lively lady with so much enthusiasm and energy.  Her exuberance was well matched by the concert that followed which can only be described as riotous singing and dancing. It was an incredible atmosphere. After the concert we were taken to see the baby unit where we also sang.

Time was quite tight on Wednesday and we had to be away from Shalva by 4.00 in order to get to the Jerusalem Music Centre by 4.30. We arrived just in time. The JMC nestles under the Montefiore Windmill on the edge of Yemin Moshe. When we entered the hall the Hassadna Chamber Orchestra was already rehearsing. Whilst I have conducted choirs, I have never had the privilege to conduct an orchestra and the prospect of conducting this orchestra terrified me. As I got up to conduct there was one important question in my mind which was - who was going to be in control - the orchestra or me. It had to be me and therefore I set out from the beginning to ensure that this was the case. I need not have worried as the members of the orchestra were extremely professional and helpful.

The rehearsal was thrilling. I rehearsed Oseh Shalom a few times with the orchestra then when we added in Lionel, Shim, Jonny and the Choir the sound was phenomenal. After the rehearsal I then had a rehearsal with Elisha , Gideon Lionel and Jonny. We then went to “Little Italy” to eat and then quickly back to the JMC for another rehearsal.

The JMC holds about 140 people and it was packed. Many of us had relatives and friends there and the atmosphere was electric. I felt extremely honoured to be performing in the JMC and also to be taking part in the concert in aid of Hassadna.

We began the concert with a selection of some of our more formal music. Gideon did us all proud with his performance of Ilan and Elisha played wonderfully. Elisha also played for Esa Ainiy sang beautifully by Lionel and Jonny. After our performance the orchestra played Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for String Orchestra and the first movement of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nacht Musik. The finale was Oseh Shalom played by the Orchestra and sung by Lionel, Shim, Jonny and the choir. Despite by baton sprouting wings and being launched across the JMC! it was one of the (if not the) most proud musical moments in my life. If that was not enough we were then asked for an encore and so we did it all again but this time with audience participation. It was an extraordinary end, to a remarkable day.

Thursday 3rd March

Tefila started the day. As it was Yom Kippur katan we were able to dispense with tachanun!!

It was another beautiful day and even warmer than the day before. Our first visit was the Schneider Children’s Medical Centre in Petach Tikva. We had tried to visit Schneider in 2009 however, for reasons it did not work out so it was even more special to be visiting this hospital.

Schneider is the only facility of its kind in Israel. Children come from all around the country for the specialist care that it offers. We were met by Hilat Gilad who together with Professor Yossi Press (the Director of the hospital) told us about the amazing work this hospital does. This was followed by a short video.

Visits to hospitals are always unpredictable and you never quite know if they are going to work or not. We sang in the atrium and there were patients, doctors and nurses on all floors who were both able to watch and hear what was going on.

Natanel Rubin and his Dad Sammy had now joined the mission. This was Natanel’s first opportunity to sing and to interact with the patients. Natanel was an absolute natural and with no qualms at all threw himself into the concert.

As always, our day concerts take the form of an informal mix of music with some lively songs and with some more reflective music. All three chazanim play and integral part and each bring something very special to the table. The “Shimon Sings” spot is always a lively mix of songs which will be certain to get people dancing, clapping, singing and generally just enjoying themselves. After the main concert we split up into groups and went round the wards singing.

Bet Sefer Onn in Nahalat district of North Tel Aviv was our next stop. We knew little about the school other than it was a school for children with varying disabilities. Many of the children have cystic fibrosis and cerebral palsy. Children are encouraged wherever possible to peruse normal studies and if they are able, to take examinations. We arrived and the hall was packed full of children teachers and carers. It was an amazing sight and I think it took us completely by surprise as we had not known quite what to expect. However, it turned out to be one of the most amazing hours that we have ever spent on any Solidarity through Song mission. There was plenty of singing and dancing and interaction with the kids.  There was one particular little girl in a wheel chair who could not stop laughing and giggling. I can still see her face now. I found Bet Sefer Onn very moving and like all the places we go to, such a worthwhile visit.  

We were back to coach to out next stop which was Kfar Chabad. This was a first for us and not the usual venue for a Shabbaton concert but by the time we left we were under no misapprehension as to why we had visited Kfar Chabad and the importance of the visit.

The visit was arranged through Rabbi Levi Sudak in Edgware and coordinated by Stefan Rothschild. We were at Kfar Chabad for the batmitzvah of Esther Malka Rivkin a young girl; wheelchair bound who was celebrating that day. Jonny sang Eishet Chayil to her which was very beautiful. There followed an eclectic mix of music from Chabad’s greatest hits (thanks Shim) to our usual repertoire…by the way up to this point the “niggun” had still not been heard and to the delight of many, this mission became a niggun free mission. Lionel’s dancing at Kfar Chabad is now legendary! At the end of the singing we were each presented with a book which amounted to the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Medical Handbook. Well you never know when or where it might come in handy!

After the concert we were back on the road again to Modi’in. In fact we arrived early so we davened mincha and had some free time before eating a good fleischig meal at the HaAish restaurant. Unfortunately, the journey to the shul where the concert was being held, took a long time so we had no choice but to practice on the coach. We were all very exhausted and some of us (?) a little short tempered.

It is a real transition between the informality of the day performances and the formality of an evening concert. A change into a suit certainly helps but it is also a change of mindset and singing technique and sometimes the changeover is not as immediate as it should be. Therefore, it was imperative that the message was sounded loud and clear! Those who were there will know what I mean!!

The concert in Modi’in was a celebration of the life of Marc Weinberg z”l. Marc, the son of our dear friends Syma and Henry Weinberg and husband and dad to Natalie and Yona and Mayan was an inspiration to many.  Marc sadly, died last year after battling with cancer. This concert was never going to be easy not only for us, but also for Marc’s family and for all those attending. We were all determined that this would be a celebration of Marc’s short life and in so doing try to make it a positive experience for everyone. Getting the balance right in the programme was essential. That is true for every concert that we do and a lot of my time and energy goes into ensuring that the programme works and fits the purpose. For this concert, Shimon and I worked on putting the programme together which would include Shimon’s own tribute to Marc.

The evening began with a number of speeches including Rav Lau the Chief Rabbi of Modi’in and our own Chief Rabbi. Our Chief Rabbi spoke about Marc’s life and how it had been cut short; how Marc managed to fit more into a day then many do in a week and how much more could have been achieved had Marc lived. He then quoted from Pirkei Avot  “Hayom Katser v’hamlacha m’ruba……” “The day is short but the work is great…..” How did the Chief Rabbi know that these were the words that I had chosen for the song that I had written in memory of Marc which Shimon would sing later in the evening? The fact is he didn’t know, as I didn’t know that he was going to mention them in his speech!

Natalie Weinberg bravely spoke with dignity and emotion for what must have been for her, a very difficult few minutes. All of the speakers were upstaged by beautiful Yona who in a red tartan dress introduced the speakers. 

The concert was an emotional roller coaster with performances of some of our most popular and contemporary music. Jonny sang an amazing Y’hi Ratson and Gideon and Natanel both exceeded all expectations with their singing of Tal and Machnisay respectively. Shimon’s tribute was truly moving with V’zakeini followed by a terrific medley of Yigal Calek songs. This was followed by my own tribute to Marc “Hayom Katser”. Shimon sang for the moment and gave it his all. The concert ended with the Shehecheyanu and Oseh Shalom. It was a magical evening and possibly one of the best and emotional evenings that I have ever been privileged to be involved in. But people went home with a smile on their face and to that end the concert achieved what we all wanted it to achieve.

The coach took us back to Jerusalem where we davened maariv and where day two of Solidarity through Song 2011 ended.

Friday 4th March

If we could have ordered the weather then this is what we would have asked for; beautiful blue skies, not a cloud to be seen and bright spring sunshine.

After t’fila and breakfast we were on our way to Tel Aviv for the launch of our new “Shabbaton Sings Reuth”. The album is a mix of some old tracks and four new tracks three of which featured our old boy soloist Eli Baigel (recorded before he became a contra bass!!). The fourth new track was our Oseh Shalom recording which is well on the way to 1.2 million hits on youtube at the time of writing (had to get that in!). The album was the brainchild of Anthony Broza whose brother David has worked for Reuth for eight years and who is the inspiration behind their fund raising. Anthony Broza offered all of his technical services free (and managed to persuade others e.g. Sony to do likewise). The Shabbaton Choir donated all of its services free and in addition paid for the additional studio time. All proceeds from the album will go to Reuth.

The official launch took place on the roof top of the hospital, in the therapeutic garden in the presence of patients, doctors and nurses. We were also privileged that Rav Yisrael Meir Lau, Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv and Chief Rabbi Sacks were able to attend. The album was launched followed by plenty of singing and dancing.

From Reuth we made our way back to Jerusalem and a visit to the Ma’ahal, the Gilad Shalit peace tent outside the Prime Minister’s residence. The tent is tiny but very powerful. Above the entrance was the figure “1713” being the number of days that Gilad has been held in captivity. We sang Tsadik katamar and were hoping to have the opportunity to speak to Noam Shalit, Gilad’s father. On hearing the music Noam appeared and we explained to him why we were in Israel and why we had specifically come to the tent today. We sang Oseh Shalom and Noam was visibly moved. In fact, we all had tears in our eyes. Before we left, Noam came onto our coach and he said that he hoped that “the sounds of the beautiful singing could be carried on the wind directly to Gilly’s prison cell”. A more humbling moment would be difficult to find.

The coach took us back to the hotel where we had some free time to relax in the spring sunshine. We then got ready for Shabbat.

This year we are once again spending Shabbat with the students of “Lavi 15” and 25 students from the Tribe Tilt group. We also had Simon and Leanne Taylor with us and David Collins from London.

John Corre also had his own group of around 60 people including Daniella’s Mum and Dad. We also had our nephew Gideon Sacofsky’s fiancée Sophie with us over Shabbat. Many of the choristers had family staying as did Lionel. Unfortunately Lionel was not well today and had to rest his voice as he ahd what appeared to be laryngitis. It was really sad for Lionel and for all of us that he was not able to take part.

Tefila was held in the appropriately named “Shamayim Hall”. We rehearsed first and Kabalat was led by Shimon with plenty of dancing and singing. This was followed by a choral maariv. We had a delicious dinner with plenty of zemirot (from the lovely books that we provided as a gift to the group). The Lavi and Tilt groups were very lively and really added to the atmosphere of the evening. All in all it was an amazing ruach.

We then had a talk from the British Ambassador Matthew Gould. Ambassador Gould is the first Jewish British Ambassador of Israel. This was followed by a question and answer session with The Chief Rabbi and Asher Cailingold.

The few of us that were left then had a kumsitz and we just sang and sang. I offered a few words to TILT about the mission and the importance of using their year in Israel to their utmost to include volunteering in some of the incredible places that we had visited. This is just what Danny Feuer had done on the back of his visit to Aleh with the mission earlier in the week. I was really proud of what Danny had done.

Shabbat 5th March

So, it was an early start to Shabbat morning with all of us suffering from acute tiredness. The result was that we had to adapt our singing practices for our t’fila and only attempt what our chazanim and choristers were able to do well. However, this did not stop us from showcasing my new Bircat hachodesh which was the best rendition we gave. Shame it was not recorded! Shimon davened Shacharit as Lionel was still suffering from laryngitis. Jonny took over from kriat hatorah. Lionel still managed (I am not sure how) to lein the parsha and parshat shekalim. There was a break for Kiddush in the middle of the service and we spilled out onto the mirpesset which was draped in bright sunshine and form where we admired the wonderful views of Jerusalem.

After davening the Chief Rabbi delivered an amazing shiur. As he is an avel he has not been able to attend any of the concerts and he asked me if we would introduce his shiur with “Bilvavi” which we did. It was a very moving performance.

I then went to meet the Lavi kids. It is strange to think that the first time I ever did this type of session was with Lavi 7 and this year it is Lavi 15. We were also joined by Tilt. We had a really good discussion about the mission and what it achieves. Lavi 15 were a very lively and responsive group which helped. We ended with a rehearsal of Oseh Shalom which we had agreed we would perform at lunchtime.

Lunch once again was really good and then time for the cabaret! We started with Lewnadowski’s “Lasham Ha’aretz” as I really wanted to showcase what the choir can do. This was followed by Ein keloheinu sang by Gideon and Natanel and finally the joint forces of Shabbaton, Lavi 15, Tilt (and one from Ramatayim) to sing Oseh Shalom..amazing sound..thank you everyone!

During the afternoon Asher Cailingold gave a talk about his sister Ester Z”L who died during the War of Independence.

Seuda was once again an opportunity for some amazing stories from the Chief Rabbi and some very soulful singing. It was a perfect end to a beautiful Shabbat. We davened maariv and then Shimon lead havdalah on the mirpesset overlooking Jerusalem.

There was then a big rush as a few of us were going ahead to Elazar to set up and rehearse for the concert. The concert was being held to raise funds for Project Shani. Shani Duke (a young girl) died in a car accident and her parents have set up a fund to raise money for needy families so that they can celebrate their s’machot. 

The rehearsal time before the concert was limited and frenetic. In addition to us, there was the local Pirchei Etzion who performed three songs and also Shlomo Zichel (grandson of Naftali Herstik) who performed Hamalach Hagoel with the choir. Shlomo did amazingly well. There was also a performance of Ein keloheinu with our boy soloists, two of Lionel’s grandsons, Shlomo and Yair Tabory. The concert ended with the combined voices of Shabbaton and Pirchei Etzion in Oseh Shalom.

The “Last Supper” was held at Mifgash Ha’esh and whilst the food was wonderful it was already late and we were all a “little” tired. That did not stop the various thank yous being offered for the mission and for our President Peter Sheldon “OBE” to offer his own pearls of wisdom. Avelyn’s much awaited and now customary song was then sung - this year to Saqui’s Yigdal.

Sunday 6th March

There was barely time once we got back to the hotel and packed, before we were up again for shachrit and as it was Rosh Chodesh the wake up call was that much earlier!

Then back on the coach for a rather unusual visit. When Neil Greenbaum first mentioned to me about the Hattie Friedland School my first reaction was “how can a choir sing to pupils at a school for the deaf”! What complicated matters further was that over half of the children at the school are Arabs and Shabbaton hasn’t quite finished learning its Arabic Medley. But Neil said we should not worry and that this would be a visit that we would never forget. He was not wrong! He asked us to suggest a song or two so that we could perform it on the day. I suggested “Od Yavo Shalom Aleynu” as the song speaks of peace and contains the only Arabic word the choir can sing “Salaam”.

We arrived at the school and were met by the principal. She told us all about the school and took us into a number of lessons. We met a teacher at the school who was profoundly deaf. When asked to describe himself, he told us that first and foremost he was deaf and then everything else followed form that. Asked why he did not have a cochlea implant to assist his hearing he said that it is better to be deaf in Israel than try to pretend that you have normal hearing…!!.

The choir were then taught how to sign for the song. Some caught on faster than others! There were then 5/6 children who danced in the middle of the song and we rehearsed with them. Later the whole school gathered in the hall and we performed Od Yavo in full voice and with all the movements. We then sang Oseh Shalom with two signers showing us how to sign. This was a very special moment and will be an everlasting memory of this mission. So, I was wrong…certainly by the reaction we got, Shabbaton was able to sing to pupils at a school for the deaf; a school which does not differentiate between culture, nationality, race or religion.

It was then back on the coach to our final stop; mincah and at the Hurva.; a shul which has been destroyed and then rebuilt over the centuries. (Ramban in his letter to his son refers to it).It was last destroyed during the War of Independence and only very recently rebuilt and opened. This visit was arranged by Lionel who has a personal connection with the shul as his own father Rabbi Abraham Rosenfeld was barmitzvah in the shul in 1928. A book written about the Hurva shows a picture of Lionel’s Dad on the front taken at the time of his weekday aliyah for his barmitzvah.

Somehow, despite still not being well, Lionel mustered up the strength to daven mincha and in so doing Lionel created a beautiful atmosphere. Saying Kadish after mincha was not easy. This was followed by a few words by the Chief Rabbi and our final songs, Shomeir Yisrael “Guard Israel” and our personal prayer for peace “Oseh Shalom. Hatikvah then ended Solidarity through Song 2011. It was an incredibly special moment.

Those on the earlier flights left straight away and those on the later flight had some time in the Old City. 

Finally

This year there were certainly more questions to be asked and answered before we could run the mission. There were not always satisfactory answers to our questions but having made the decision to run with the mission we dedicated ourselves to ensuring its success. We all agreed that the central theme of the mission would be children and more particularly, children with specific needs. If there were previously any second thoughts about running the mission, these thoughts very quickly dissolved into the heat of the Jerusalem sun the morning we sang in the courtyard at Aleh.  In some ways this was “the best mission”. Those organising worked exceptionally hard to make sure that the mission ran to plan. The standard of singing was exceptional and showed how hard everybody had worked. But every tour is different and is characterised by something very special.

There is no one reason why Solidarity through Song is so successful. It is a special synergy between the choir, Lionel, Shimon, Jonny and our boy soloists. The inspiration of the CR, our President, Peter and Syma and Henry and our wives, parents and friends ensure that the mission is the amazing success that it is.

We visited so many places and met so many people. How do you describe to someone the visit to the Hattie Friedland School for the Deaf; the reaction of the kids at Aleh, ICELP, Bet Sefer Onn and the almost riotous conditions at Shalva!!! How do you describe the humility we felt meeting Noam Shalit and singing at the peace tent?

So, if you asked me what stands out for me, well the easy answer is to say it was all fantastic. But if you pressed me I would say that the concert in Modi’in in Marc’s memory was one of the most moving and beautiful concerts I have ever been privileged to take part. If you pressed me further I would have to say that I will never forget the thrill and excitement of conducting Oseh Shalom at the Hassadna concert. But for me the crowning moment happened before the mission commenced. It was being privileged to see the smile on Yotam’s face; a young boy with severe cerebral palsy as he finished playing his one figured rendition on the piano. His face just said it all.

Stephen Levey

30th March 2011