Minister buoys Leeds with a little help from the Beatles

Alby Chait is raising spirits with innovative efforts to keep his shul (and a wider audience) engaged


The senior minister of Leeds’ United Hebrew Congregation is raising the spirits of his community during the pandemic by introducing songs by the Beatles and Oasis into online Shabbat services, while remaining within halachic restrictions.

Chazan Alby Chait is also a Jewish NHS chaplain who has had to spend many difficult hours on hospital wards and ICUs with Covid patients.

“It’s been a challenging year for the community,” he told the JC. “That is why when we can mark special moments, we must.”

The father-of-three has launched a new weekly initiative to remotely celebrate Shabbat. At times, thousands of people from across the globe have logged in to watch the Orthodox service before Shabbat or the post-Shabbat Havdalah.

To cater for his increased online following, Mr Chait has modernised synagogue services. Accompanied by pianist John Chamberlain, he performs a range of songs, including Beatles’ classics — and even Lecha Dodi (Come My Beloved) to an Oasis soundtrack.

“When the idea hit, we went online really quickly,” the chazan said. “And we found a huge congregation,” including many who would not normally attend synagogue.

“Maybe when things are tough, people look for a bit of hope, for something more powerful.

“That, along with the convenience of being able to engage from their home, meant we saw so many people watching us online.”

For Saturday nights, he introduced a “Thought of the Day” segment delivered by a range of high-profile figures.

“It put a modern perspective on what we were doing,” he explained. “The reaction has been so unexpected.”

Lord Mann, actress Tracy Ann-Oberman, former boyband member Anthony Costa and Liverpool FC coach John Achterberg have been among the online guests. There have also been digital events to celebrate the festivals.

For Chanukah, the chazan performed at eight iconic Yorkshire venues, among them Harewood House and the Leeds Grand Theatre.

For the final night, Leeds United opened their Elland Road stadium for Mr Chait and his team to film. “It was massive,” he said. “We had 12,000 views that night.”

As for simchot, when the father of barmitzvah boy Aaron Lee contracted Covid, the family had to self-isolate, meaning Aaron could not have a synagogue ceremony (this was before the current lockdown).

But as his teacher, the chazan arranged for the service to take place on the family’s front lawn before Shabbat.

With police permission, he sprayed circles across the street to facilitate a socially-distanced minyan.

“Every male can always recall the date and place of his barmitzvah,” Mr Chait added.

“I knew we had to make it special because moments like this can have a lasting impact on a boy’s life.

“Making an effort, even in these times, shows someone how welcome he is, now as a man, in the community.”

The barmitzvah boy “was so delighted, as were his parents. It wasn’t a shul experience and it wasn’t a big party. But they told me afterwards that they felt so connected to their faith. We cannot miss out on these moments. We have to think outside the box and as a Jewish community we are good at that, we are creative.

“In Judaism, we have to embrace the challenges we are given.”

The minister has also just been engaged as a regular contributor to Radio 2’s Pause For Thought.

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