Singing in solidarity with the South

Britain's Shabbaton Choir hopes Gaza evacuees and Sderot residents will find solace in their song.

choir 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
choir 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Instead of code red alert sirens and exploding Kassam rockets, the proverbial "hills" around Sderot will be alive next month with the sound of music, courtesy of Britain's Shabbaton Choir. Launching their fifth annual Solidarity Through Song mission on March 4th, the all-male, all observant Anglo-Jewish choir featuring some of the top cantorial soloists in Britain, decided to focus their shows this year on the South of the country as a gesture of "solidarity" with the residents there, said the choir's president Peter Sheldon. "Often the places we go you find the forgotten elements of society, and it's important for them to get some attention," he said. "For the people we entertain, the music, fun and laughter helps the healing process." "This year, we're performing in the areas in the South around Sderot, Ashkelon and Ashdod. We're entertaining the direct line of fire." The missions began in 2003, during the Intifada, with the aim of bringing solace and entertainment principally to victims of the Palestinian terror campaign. But the missions, under the auspices of Britain's Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (whom Sheldon calls "a driving element") and United Synagogue, have expanded their mandate over the years to include hospitals, convalescent homes, and homes for the mentally and physically disabled. And this year's tour will be no exception, said the 66-year-old Sheldon during a quick visit to Jerusalem earlier this month. "On each trip we've returned on, we've done at least two major performances in aid of the institutions we've visited. The other performances are more informal, where we encourage the audience to participate and sing along. And usually, whether it's for young people, disadvantaged groups or even people in wheelchairs, they all end up dancing or moving around. This year's showcase performances will be at Kibbutz Sa'ad in benefit for the Neve Landy Children's Village on March 5th and in Ashdod together with the Ashdod Symphony Orchestra in a benefit on March 6th for a new medical center there. "We hope to perform in Sderot, but it depends on the situation at the moment," said Sheldon. "We'll be doing shows, though, for Sderot families and children who have temporarily left their homes, as well as a show for a large number of the Gaza evacuees." Acknowledging that the group has some jitters about performing in a volatile place like Sderot, Sheldon stressed that the members of the choir become "Israeli" when they arrive here. "Of course, we're always apprehensive. Don't forget, we were coming during the Intifada. During our second mission, a bomb went off right outside our hotel in Jerusalem. When you're here, you're touched by all the events, just like Israelis," he said. Founded in 1986 by Stephen Glass and Cantor Stephen Robins, the Shabbaton Choir's innovative choral sound has been heard in synagogue services and concerts throughout the UK and abroad. Musical director and conductor Stephen Levey has led the choir since 1991. Featuring soloists Lionel Rosenfeld, Shimon Craimer and Jonny Turgel, the choir has recorded programs for the BBC on radio and television and have released a number of CDs, including Selichot, a collection of music from their choral selichot service, Shir Chadash, a collection of some of their most popular concert music, and most recently 2006's Bilvavi, a synthesis of old and contemporary Jewish liturgical and folk music. According to Sheldon, it was Levey and Rosenfeld who first conceived of the plan to begin doing concert tours in England. "They decided it would raise more interest in shul services, by going around and performing music that people could appreciate on all levels. It slowly expanded into full-fledged concerts and tours," he said. From there, it was a quick jump to launching the solidarity missions to Israel. "I was president of United Synagogue in Britain and Stephen [Levey] came to me and said, 'There must be something we can do for the people who are suffering over there,'" recalled Sheldon. "Our first mission was just after the Park Hotel atrocity, and the focus of our performances were very much on the places that terror victims had been taken to, like hospitals and rehab centers. It was a particularly moving experience." Former ambassador to England Yehuda Avner is a big fan of the choir, and wrote a letter to Sheldon after witnessing their effect on Israeli audiences. "I honestly cannot think of a solidarity mission that has sung its way so magnificently into the hearts of so many Israelis whose lives have been scarred by events, or who stand watch over our frontiers. Equally, I cannot think of better ambassadors to represent to Israel so much of what is good, selfless, and creative about the Anglo-Jewish community," he wrote. Sheldon agrees that the choir does present a side of Anglo Jewry that is often overlooked. "I think our visits demonstrate to the Anglo community in Israel that we Britons are not quite as laid back as it appears. We do have something to contribute to Israel," he said. Sheldon, who joked that despite boasting a "passable" voice, the choir only allows him to stand in the back row during one show each tour and join in, said that being involved with the group has enabled him to experience the finer attributes of the human character. "I'm very lucky to be involved with a group of fabulous people of different ages, who give up a week of their time each year, for the privilege of bringing a little light and entertainment."