The Shabbaton Choir - With a song in their hearts

Remarkably, the group recently made their 10th trip to Israel to entertain residents on the fringes of the Gaza Strip – every performance at no charge.

‘WE ARE family’: The Shabbaton Choir. (photo credit: VIVIENNE STONE)
‘WE ARE family’: The Shabbaton Choir.
(photo credit: VIVIENNE STONE)
‘Words are the language of the mind, and music is the language of the soul.”
 – Former UK chief rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
Meet the Shabbaton family from London: 25 brothers, their wives ranging in age up to the mid-70s, 56 children and 63 grandchildren. They get together often on Shabbat and other occasions, share family and social events and are one big happy family, except for one thing: They are not actually related. They are the members of The Shabbaton Choir, and some of them have been singing together since 1986.
What makes this “family” even more remarkable is that this past February, at their own expense and on vacation from work, they made their 10th trip to Israel to entertain residents on the fringes of the Gaza Strip and outlying areas, every performance at no charge. Together with their accompanist Benjamin Fingerhut and the choristers’ wives (and the mom and grandparents of the 11-year-old singer) clapping and singing along in the audience, they performed for bereaved families in children’s wards in hospitals; in daycare centers for children with cognitive and physical challenges; in Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh, Kiryat Gat and Sderot; at Beit Halochem, the army’s rehabilitation and recreation center in Beersheba; at soup kitchens and old age homes; for Arab families; for the members of Kibbutz Sa’ad, and at centers in Ofakim and Netivot. They even managed to fit in a performance in Soroka Hospital in Beersheba, and in Kaplan Hospital while on their way to the airport for their flight home. The singers perform for religious and secular audiences, and their repertoire includes liturgical music and secular Israeli songs.
 The “father” of the clan is Rabbi/Cantor Lionel Rosenfeld, who grew up in Jerusalem and joined the choir in 1986 after he left Israel to become rabbi and cantor of London’s Western Marble Arch Synagogue. At the time, the aim of the group was to arrange liturgical music in such a way as to bring more meaning to prayers, and this they did, singing in the synagogue and locally. Requirements to join the choir were (and still are) a love of singing and a passion for the ideals of the choir – inspiring and communicating through music.
The Shabbaton Choir first took to the stage in 1986, under its founding name “The B’nai Brith Festival Singers.” It was started by a young musician named Stephen Glass, who sought a modern alternative to traditional liturgical music. A year later, Glass met Rosenfeld. Together, they developed innovative Friday night and Shabbat morning choral services so the prayers being said and sung by the congregation would be given new life. In 1990, Glass relocated to Montreal, and his place was taken by Stephen Levey, director of music at Immanuel College in Bushey, Hertfordshire. Levey is still musical director of the group.
AFTER A very successful debut at a midnight Slichot service in the New West End Synagogue in London with then-Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in attendance, the group began receiving invitations to appear across the UK, changing their name from B’nai Brit Festival Singers to the Shabbaton Choir. Singing not only in synagogues, the choir has also sung at inter-faith conferences in front of bishops and archbishops at Windsor Castle who were all beating time to “Am Yisrael Chai.”
The choir’s first Israeli tour was in 1996, but it took seven years for the group to return. That was almost 16 years to the day when in February 2003, the Second Intifada began to rage. Rabbi Sacks led the group on the first of eight missions called “Solidarity Through Song,” whose aim was to bring the joy of music to survivors of terrorist attacks and those suffering physically and mentally from the trauma of war. Although each appearance is memorable, two performances have long been engraved on the choir’s collective memories: a show in the newly rebuilt banquet hall of the Park Hotel in Netanya, the scene of a terrorist attack during the 2002 Passover group Seder in which 29 people were killed and 140 injured; and singing to Sarah on her fourth birthday while her mother was in a coma following the terrorist attack on the Sbarro Pizzeria in Jerusalem. Since that trip, musical missions have taken place just about every year, with the group performing all over the country.
In 2007, while Ashdod, Ashkelon, Sderot and other nearby areas were being bombarded by missiles launched from the Gaza Strip, the Shabbaton Choir returned to Israel with the aim of entertaining those who were in the firing line. While in Sderot, the singers had a close call when the “red alert” signal announcing an “incoming missile” went off during a performance. They had 15 seconds to make it to the adjoining “safe room” as the sirens wailed and a rocket landed on a nearby house. This harrowing incident did not deter the singers, and that evening the show went on, playing to a very enthusiastic and grateful audience in a fortified venue.
Over the years, the Shabbatons have played in Europe and the USA. In 2005, they were invited to sing at a Kristallnacht commemoration in Neheim, Germany. With the theme of “Never Again,” they sang tehillim (psalms) at the city’s Jewish cemetery, memorial prayers at a reception in the restored synagogue, and gave a concert to a standing-room-only audience of more than 300 local residents. During the intermission, two Neheim residents came up to the choir and quietly told them that they too were Jewish, a fact that they had kept hidden, and that their music had reawakened some beautiful memories from long, long ago.
IN 2007, the choir led memorial prayers at Auschwitz-Birkenau, followed by a choral Mincha prayer service in Krakow’s Rema Synagogue. In 2015, they sang at Bergen-Belsen in a ceremony attended by the president of Germany, the Duke of Gloucester, UK Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, and other dignitaries to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Germany by the British Army.
That performance was followed by singing at a memorial service in the Jewish cemetery next to the local British Army garrison. This is the final resting place for those who survived the camp but later succumbed to illness. From there, the Shabbaton Choir gave concerts in German Jewish Community Centers before returning to London. They have also sung for audiences throughout the US, and performed many times on radio and television, but Israel remains closest to their hearts, and so it was again that for five whirlwind days this past February, the singers and their wives came back to the Holy Land, as always at their own expense, to sing for us. This time around, they brought their youngest member, 11-year-old Rafi Posner, who had sung with the choir at home but was singing then for the first time abroad. Rafi plays guitar and soccer, and is an avid fan of Manchester United. But his main passion is singing. He is a student of Shabbaton soloist, Cantor Johnny Turgell, of the Stanmore Synagogue in London. Young Rafi especially enjoys singing in hospitals and old-age homes and “making people happy.”
Besides Rosenfeld, there are two other cantors in the choir: Shimon Craimer – originally from London who spent 15 years as the cantor of New York’s Riverdale Jewish Center – and Jonny Turgel, cantor at Stanmore and Canons Park Synagogue in London, and a practicing speech therapist. Both have impressive music backgrounds and well-rounded musical careers.
Shimon has, among other projects, just recorded a video for Nefesh b’Nefesh, telling the story of his family’s aliyah to Israel, where he divides his time between Modi’in and Riverdale. Two other members of the choir have immigrated to Israel, to Ashkelon and Modi’in. But that doesn’t stop them from singing with group. They are sent the music via Internet with their parts underlined, and if they need help learning it, they have friends here who help them.
Besides the rabbi and cantors in the group, there are two (biological) fathers and sons, two judges, lawyers, accountants, a hotel consultant, a financial consultant, and teachers – who because of their school commitments can only travel during school breaks. And so it is that the group was here in February for a relatively short time. But in those five days, they managed to reach audiences totaling in the thousands.
Says Cantor Craimer, “Singing in front of Israeli audiences gives me strength for the whole year.”
Cantor Turgel adds, “We come to Israel to inspire and give strength to the people here, but the fact is, we’re the ones that are inspired and get strength.”