The YMCA bell tower rings true in Jerusalem

There is more to the iconic carillon than meets the ears

CARILLON CONCERTS are significant events attracting locals as well as visitors from afar. (photo credit: JERUSALEM INTERNATIONAL YMCA)
CARILLON CONCERTS are significant events attracting locals as well as visitors from afar.
The YMCA building is one of the most magnificent in Jerusalem, and the impressive tower above the main entrance, rising to a height of about 50 meters, is one of the landmarks of the city. At the top of the tower, which can be reached by means of an elevator, there is an observation platform that commands a splendid panoramic view of the whole city and its environs.
Beneath the dome-covered balcony, there is a bell room housing 36 bells of different sizes, which together create the only bell carillon of its kind in the entire Middle East. The bells are made of bronze and they were cast in a London factory and assembled in the YMCA tower with the official consecration of the building in 1933. The biggest bell weighs 1,500 kilos and the smallest eight kilos. The bell chamber was dedicated to King George the Fifth.
Below the bell chamber level, there is the playing room, and in its center the bell console, which resembles a cross between an organ and a weaving loom and whose main section is an oak frame with 36 pegs. These pegs are arranged on a kind of keyboard; from each peg there extends a metal cable that goes up through a hole in the ceiling of the room up to the bell chamber and connects to the bell clapper. A gentle lowering of the peg or a swift knock with a clenched fist, as well as by the use of foot pedals (which activate 12 big bells and the same number of small bells) causes the movement of the clappers and the production of the sounds. The bells are arranged in three full octaves. Great skill is required to produce the sounds of the bell system, involving the rapid movement of fists across the keyboard – in order to produce the soft and quiet tones or the powerful and hard ones – and is physically demanding both on the hands and the feet.
GABY SHEFLER, who was a professor of psychology at the Hebrew University and since his retirement has worked as a psychotherapist at the Herzog Medical Center in Jerusalem, is the most experienced carillonneur today in Israel for operating the YMCA bell system. When he was a student in 1973 he took a course for carillon bell players at the YMCA with eight other people, and also played for years in well-known bell towers in Europe and the United States. He has been playing uninterruptedly since 2006 in the Jerusalem YMCA tower. His unique concerts, which last from between half an hour to two hours, also serve to open many festivals in Jerusalem.
For the past decade, he has been performing in the Jerusalem Arts Festival, in the International Chamber Music Festival, the Bach Festival, and in the Israel Festival – and of course at Christmas – and by special invitation at conferences and family and social events.
Shefler sits deep in concentration in the playing room high up and doesn’t hear his playing – but the large audience that gathers for special concerts from the early evening hours in the open space at the entrance to the YMCA and in the spacious garden in front of the building, enjoys the clear air of Jerusalem and the bell symphony, which can be clearly heard within a radius of four kilometers.
Shefler arranges and plays favorite Israeli songs (like those of Naomi Shemer) as well as well-known Russian and French melodies. The listeners sometimes feel as if the sounds land on them from the heavens. Some also join in singing. Shefler describes the playing of all the bells together as “a kind of angelic humming.” The player must be a virtuoso in order to produce sweet melodies from the raw bells that cannot be tuned and which are affected by the weather, winds, cold and heat.
IN 2018, the bell keyboard in the YMCA tower, for the first time since its installation, underwent a thorough overhaul by a Dutch company. For 85 years it contained only 35 bells with the sounds Do, Re, Mi, Fa F-sharp, Sol, Sol-sharp, Re-sharp. It lacked the B-flat bell. The million dollars donated by an American millionaire to build the YMCA building (built in the years 1926-1933) and to purchase the bell system – ran out. The international YMCA management decided then, among other things, to make do with one bell less. The playing was still enabled but the sound was deficient.
With the complete overhaul of the system, the missing bell, weighing 850 kilos, was cast in Holland, brought to Jerusalem, and hoisted by special crane to the bell tower. As a tribute to the many years’ activity of the carillonneur Gabi Shefler, his initials, GS, were engraved on its inside surface. The overhauled keyboard responded more readily to the sweeping fists of the player who previously had to wear finger guards, and the chord harmony was improved.
Other impressive bell towers are to be found in the cities of Lyon, Antwerp, Groningen and London. The biggest bell towers in the world are in Chicago and New York – and are considered to be sister-systems. Both of them were cast, like the YMCA bells, in the early 1930s, and also in the same London factory of Gillet & Johnson. The bell system in Chicago is located in the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel and consists of 72 bells weighing altogether about 100 tons. The biggest one among them weighs 18.5 tons This is the biggest musical instrument ever built. Its sister system, is located in the Riverside Church in New York and consists of 74 bells, the biggest of them weighing 20 tons.
The writer is a lecturer on the history of the Jewish people and Jerusalem and author of the bestseller, The Mysteries of Jerusalem: 101 Unique Sites in Jerusalem.
Translated by David Herman.