On Sunday December 1, West London Synagogue is hosting a concert, with the London Gay Men’s Chorus (the largest gay male-voice choir in Europe), marking its first major collaboration with the Jewish community.
The concert marks both World Aids Day and the fifth night of Chanucah.
But it’s not just any ordinary concert, and it is no surprise that it has taken us years to sort out a date for it. This particular event starts with a short evening service, led by Rabbi David Mitchell. Because it is World Aids Day, we will be including a dedication to the millions of people across the globe affected by Aids. There will also be a memorial to those who have lost their battle with the disease, or are at risk of losing that battle now.
But also within that same service, as an expression of hope, and recognising how many people now experience full, creative and rich lives while living with the disease, we will be lighting five candles on West London Synagogue’s historic Chanuciah before the concert begins.
Most years, the London Gay Men’s Chorus, of which I have the honour to be a patron, holds a big carol concert. I personally love carols, though they are not, theologically, what you can sing comfortably as a Jew, for obvious reasons!
But there have been times, in some places, where carol concerts have become somewhat political. Once in Royal David’s City, for instance, a carol I adore as a piece of music, can be presented with strong anti-Zionist undertones.
So I could not be more pleased to see quite the opposite here, with the London Gay Men’s Chorus creating a special programme of music appropriate to the event and the synagogue setting. We have Over the Skies of Israel, as a Chanucah song, What I Did for Love from A Chorus Line, and a whole range of other songs.
West London has been a pioneer in the march to equality for all, and we are rightly proud of our tolerant, inclusive, gay-friendly atmosphere. Yet, even so, it’s a remarkable thing for the Chorus to be doing this with us.
But having heard them rehearse, and seen them in action at West London, having seen the respect with which they treat our building and especially the synagogue itself, I know that what they are singing, and how they are presenting it, is a message of love and hope. World Aids Day brings hope of itself — Aids is no longer an automatic death sentence, though in many parts of the world those drugs that can enable people to live with it are not widely available.
People are living with Aids, not dying from it — at least in much of the West. Yet, in the dark days of the 1980s, when Aids was seen as a form of plague, West London Synagogue opened its doors and embraced the gay community.
That message of openness and tolerance is reflected in the concert programme. It starts with Ma Tovu, “How good are your tents, O Jacob”, a song from Balaam, who was sent to curse the Israelites by Balak, king of the Moabites, but ended up praising them. It’s the only prayer in our liturgy written by a non-Jew, and the relevance of it in this concert is both an appreciation of “the other” from the Chorus itself, and a sign of the wider virtues of appreciating and understanding each other.
And what Ma Tovu, and the concert more generally, manages to convey is a message of inclusivity, and welcome, that I would dearly love to see extended far more widely, within the Jewish community and beyond.