The Shabbaton Choir: A History

The Shabbaton Choir first took to the stage in 1986 at the Wigmore Hall, London under its founding name - the B’nai Brith Festival Singers. It was formed by a young and talented musician, Stephen Glass, who sought a modern alternative to traditional choral music and composed new arrangements that brought out the mood and meaning of the prayers. Then in September 1988, for the first time in almost twenty years, Stephen Glass conducted a Choral Midnight Selichot service featuring two Chazanim, Steve Robins and Geoffrey Shisler. The music, whilst traditional, had been completely rearranged by Stephen and was heard that evening by a packed New West End Synagogue.

A year later in 1989 came an auspicious meeting: Lionel Rosenfeld, who had returned from Jerusalem to become Chazan of Marble Arch Synagogue, was introduced to Stephen Glass by Chazan Naftali Herstik. Lionel & Stephen found that they shared a common interest in developing innovative Friday night and Shabbat morning choral services, so that prayers that too often were said and sung as if by rote could be given new life. Although based on the established musical style - the "Nusach" - traditional melodies were re-arranged for male choir, and totally new compositions brought out the meaning of the prayers, in a modern Hebrew pronunciation with the correct stress and phrasing. And so it was that after six months of composing and rehearsing, the renamed Shabbaton Choir under Stephen Glass held its first ever Choral Shabbaton in April 1990 with Chazan Rosenfeld, at the Marble Arch Synagogue. Stephen & Lionel then continued to compose new music for Choral Selichot services.

Another major change came about in September 1991. Stephen Glass had left for Montreal to become Musical Director of the Sha’ar Hashomayim Synagogue, and Stephen Levey stepped in to conduct the Choir at the Service of Installation of Jonathan Sacks as Chief Rabbi. On the previous evening, the Choir under Stephen Levey, together with Chazanim Lionel and Steve had conducted a Choral Midnight Selichot service at the New West End Synagogue. Since that time, the Choir’s Selichot service, under the auspices of the United Synagogue (and with its own distinctive repertoire of modern melody and composition), has become an annual xture in the Anglo-Jewish calendar and has been held in synagogues around London and the UK. Lionel has been joined over the years by Chazanim Steve Robins, Robert Brody, Shimon Craimer, Steven Leas, Jonathan Murgraff and, for the past thirteen years, by Jonny Turgel. Every year until his retirement, Chief Rabbi Sacks would set the mood with an inspirational address before the Service.

The Choir's rehearsal base for many years was at Elstree & Borehamwood Synagogue and then Edgware United Synagogue until moving to its present "home" at Stanmore & Canons Park Synagogue.

Following the  first Choral Shabbaton service, communities began to invite the Choir to present its Choral Shabbaton, enjoying the fresh musicality and brilliant harmonies which made the Shabbat services so uplifting. Requests for concerts and to sing at communal, charitable and memorial events came from across London and the U.K. The Choir was hosted in provincial congregations such as Bournemouth, Norwich, Oxford and Southend, and over the years there have been regular and repeated visits to Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham, Liverpool and Glasgow. At the request of Chief Rabbi Sacks, the Choir sung in inter-faith conferences – at the Great Library of Windsor Castle and Lambeth Palace, with archbishops and bishops beating time to “Am Yisrael Chai”!

In 1996 the Choir toured Israel for the rst time, with Chazanim Lionel & Steve; it would be seven years before they returned, but in February 2003, as the second Intifada raged, Chief Rabbi Sacks led the Choir on the first of many missions to be called “Solidarity Through Song”: bringing music to those suffering from the trauma of war. Together with Chazanim Lionel and Jonny, and with Shimon Craimer from New York, the Choir sang in the wards and corridors at Laniado Hospital in Netanya, to survivors of terrorist attacks, and in the Reuth Medical Centre, Tel Aviv. A most memorable concert was also held that year in the Park Hotel in Netanya, where thirty participants in a Passover Seder had been murdered, and many injured, a year earlier. The Choir sang to the doctors and nurses who had treated the casualties in the presence of the British Ambassador, who thanked the Choir for coming to raise everyone's spirits in spite of Foreign Of ce advice against travel to Israel at that time.

Stephen Levey had by then been the Choir's devoted musical director for twelve years; now his own compositions, arranged by Stephen Glass began to take their place in the repertoire. It was at the Park Hotel that Stephen introduced his powerful composition "V'hi She'amdah", the words taken appropriately from the Passover Seder, which was passionately sung by Shimon Craimer and later recorded on CD. Another of the many poignant moments in that mission was singing at the birthday party for four-year-old Sarah, whose mother had been killed in the suicide bombing of the Sbarro Pizzeria in downtown Jerusalem.

From then on, “Solidarity Through Song” missions to Israel with Chief Rabbi Sacks were organised nearly every year. Another wonderful composition by Stephen Levey - "Bilvavi" - was written to honour the memory of Yoni Jesner, a Glaswegian Bnei Akivanik, who had been killed in a bus bombing in Tel Aviv. The song remains an emotional favourite of the concert repertoire and was the title song of their album “Bilvavi”.

In 2007 when the rockets from Gaza were raining down daily on Sderot, Ashdod and Ashkelon, the Choir visited to entertain families in the ring line. In Sderot, the Choir had a frightening taste of what the South of Israel was suffering when they too had just fteen seconds to rush to shelter as the sirens sounded and a rocket landed on a nearby home. Often in de ance of the mood, however, audience interaction has always been key to the Choir's missions, getting everyone up from their seats to join in singing and dancing with the Choir and the choristers’ wives and mothers!

On many occasions over the years, the Choir has been invited to perform in Europe and the USA.  Among the most moving visits was in 2005 to Germany, for a Kristallnacht Commemoration. Gerry Gruneberg, Stephen Levey’s father-in-law, had always wanted to bring the Choir to the town of Neheim where his parents had been born; they had escaped Germany with Gerry a few days before the outbreak of the War. With the theme of “Never Again” the Choir sang Tehilim at the Jewish cemetery of Neheim, memorial prayers at a civic reception in the restored synagogue (now a museum and café) and gave a concert in the afternoon to a packed audience of 300 local residents at the local school. Encouraged by Chazanim Lionel & Jonny, the audience joined in song with the Choir in an amazing afternoon of reconciliation. A moving moment occurred during the interval when two townspeople came to con de to the Choir that they too were Jewish, but for sixty years had never disclosed this fact to anyone in the town, and that they were distant cousins of the Gruneberg family!

page13image560In similar vein, in 2007 the Choir led memorial prayers at Auschwitz- Birkenau, followed by an elevating Choral Mincha in the Rema Synagogue in Krakow. More recently in 2015, the Choir with Lionel & Jonny sang at Bergen-Belsen in a ceremony attended by the President of Germany, The Duke of Gloucester, Chief Rabbi Mirvis and other dignitaries, commemorating the 70th Anniversary of its liberation by the British Army. The Choir then participated in a further memorial service at the Jewish cemetery attached to the local British Army garrison, where those who had survived the Camp but succumbed later to illness were buried. Then, in true Shabbaton style, making the most out of every visit and after the somber events of the day, the Choir travelled to Hannover to give an uplifting and inspiring concert in the local Synagogue. The appreciative congregation had arranged a well-deserved and lavish post-concert reception – but too late for the Choir to enjoy, as they had to make haste back to the airport.

Elsewhere in Europe, the Choir with Lionel & Jonny visited the Gothenburg Jewish Community in 2011 for a Choral Shabbaton.

Among several visits to the USA, in 2009 the Choir with Lionel, Jonny and Shimon were invited to New York as guests of The Hampton Synagogue and Young Israel of Scarsdale. In 2012, together with Chief Rabbi Sacks, they were the guests of the Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy in Los Angeles, giving concerts and leading services in the major congregations of Beverley Hills, returning there once again in 2014.page13image15256

page13image15592In 2013, the Choir took part in an evening at the Barbican to mark the retirement of Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks. Together with Chazanim Lionel, Jonny and Shimon and 300 children from Jewish primary schools across London, the Choir premiered Stephen Levey’s new work Anim Zemirot (the title track of the Choir’s new CD). Later that year the Choir took part in the Service of Installation of Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis.

The Choir has recorded many times for radio and television. It has released six albums with Chazanim Rosenfeld, Robins, Craimer and Turgel as well as an album entitled “Shabbaton Sings Reuth” in support of the Reuth Medical Centre in Tel Aviv. The Choir’s sixth album, “Anim Zemirot”, featuring 13 of Stephen Levey’s compositions mostly arranged by Raymond Goldstein of Jerusalem, was launched in January 2016.

The Shabbaton Choir is a family, never more so than when on tour. Losses are shared, particularly when it is one of its own. Mayer Wantman z”l, Barry Weinberg z”l and Alan Koch z”l, all wonderful musicians and devoted choir members, are sadly missed.

The art of communicating and inspiring others through music, whether in concert or in prayer is the raison d’etre of the Shabbaton Choir - as famous today for reaching out in song to Israelis of all ages affected by sickness and war, as for its harmony and song. Stephen Glass formed the Choir and began the journey, while Stephen Levey has continued it, working tirelessly over 25 years to maintain the Choir’s high standards while writing new music for the synagogue and the concert hall. Indeed, Stephen’s "Oseh Shalom", composed for the State of Israel’s 50th birthday, is sung the world over and has been viewed more than 2.6 million times on YouTube.

The Choir is indebted to all the Chazanim who sing with it, and in particular to Rabbi Lionel Rosenfeld who continues to be its heart, soul and inspiration. Profound thanks must also go to Rabbi Lord Sacks for his unstinting support and encouragement for all these 25 years.