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), have become an annual fixture 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, Rabbi Lord Sacks would set the mood with an inspirational address before the Service.
In February 2003, as the second Intifada raged, Rabbi Lord Sacks led the Choir on the first of many missions to Israel called "Solidarity Through Song": bringing music to those suffering from trauma. The Choir and Chazanim have entertained in communities under fire, hospitals, schools, care homes, day-care centres; given concerts; and conducted Shabbat services.
The art of communicating and inspiring others through music, whether in concert or in prayer is the raison d’etre of the Shabbaton Choir.