It is Saturday morning at Tents of Mercy.
As the worship band begins to play, every newcomer is sure to notice the man intently hunched over the keyboard. He might not look like a rock star, but the sounds emanating from his finger tips are a wonder. Effortlessly he shifts from piano to strings to synth-horns to clavinet. Always there is a jazz lilt in his style – not over-bearing but tasty and compelling. Marc Chopinsky is our worship leader but Leonid Gelbit is the man we call “the Maestro.”
Leonid’s musical ministry goes well beyond his role on the Tents of Mercy worship team. He is a voice and piano teacher and the conductor/musical director of Israel’s only Messianic worship orchestra, “Kol L’Simcha” (Sound of Joy).
Music has always been a key part of Leonid’s life; as far back as he can remember Leonid was transfixed by the music broadcast from his family’s Kiev apartment radio. Throughout elementary, high school, college and graduate school, Leonid always majored in music. After graduation from a prestigious conservatory Leonid incorporated his talents teaching at a music college and playing professionally in and around Kiev.
Leonid was uncomfortable as I pressed him to list his accomplishments. He told me, “what I did in the past is not important – what is important is that after I came to faith I started working for God.” Moving out of the secular music scene, Leonid became the head of the music department at a Kiev Bible college. Later, Leonid accepted the post of Music Director at Kiev’s largest church, The Embassy of God. Today The Embassy is not only Kiev’s largest church; it is one of the largest in Europe with around 20,000 members. In Leonid’s day it was somewhat smaller but even then he had 100 musicians and singers under his supervision. He was a pastor of a small flock within a much larger congregation – for a believing musician; Leonid was at the pinnacle of his profession. Leonid’s wife Svyeta, a classical pianist and music teacher in her own right was also enjoying professional success. She taught children’s education at The Embassy’s Bible College.
Receiving The Call
Despite their professional accomplishments, the Gelbets are first disciples and then musicians. Leonid and Svyeta heard their Master say, “Come, follow Me.” At the height of their professional careers they resigned from their positions and left it all behind to return to the land of their forefathers. In obedience to God’s call they decided make aliyah to Israel.
Shortly before their departure Leonid met another Messianic believer at a conference in Kiev. He had heard of the Gelbets’ upcoming move and asked Leonid, “Do you know where you want to settle in Israel?” Leonid had no clear plan and simply answered “no.” The man offered this advice, surely inspired by the Holy Spirit and all part of God’s purposes: “Then you must go to Eitan Shishkoff in the Haifa Bay area.”
Leonid and Svyeta did not know Eitan but they began to correspond by e-mail. The first time they met was May 1997 at Ben Gurion Airport. Eitan had come to meet them as they disembarked from the plane. I suspect neither of them knew just how important to God’s work at Tents of Mercy this partnership was to become.
Tents of Mercy was only two years old. We had nothing even approaching the sort of music ministry Leonid had been used to in Ukraine. Instead of presiding over a music department (that was larger than our whole congregation!), Leonid took whatever job he could to support his family. Unskilled workers often do not get permanent positions in Israel and Leonid bounced around from grocery store clerk to night watchman to janitor – whatever he could find.
Leonid described this as his “desert” experience. Grocery store clerk is a far cry from music director, but throughout this time Leonid faithfully served both the Tents of Mercy Congregation and what was at that time our new daughter congregation in Haifa, Shavei Tsion. Some five years ago a national messianic organization approached Leonid and asked him if he would consider organizing and directing an orchestra of Israeli Messianic musicians; they promised him a small stipend for his services. Between this and the money he earned as a teacher, Leonid could finally devote himself full time to what God had so richly gifted him for – to make and teach music.
Kol L’Simcha – The Sound of Joy
“It is God’s orchestra,” Leonid explained. “Almost immediately I started receiving calls from musicians from around the country. I didn’t have to invite anyone, the musicians sought me out.” From all across the north of Israel, from Messianic and Christian congregations, from teenagers to seniors, a dedicated group of professional and student musicians coalesced to become Kol L’Simcha. Despite the variety of backgrounds, despite the fact that no one receives any money to play, five years later the orchestra is still going strong. The orchestra has taken on a “Big Band” sound and is the only one of its kind in Israel. They play Leonid’s arrangements of traditional Klezmer, Messianic, Gospel, Jazz and Blues music. Leonid’s vision is to expand the orchestra into a training school for students. Leonid explained, “I can’t teach everyone so I want to involve others in training young people. I hope with God’s help we can grow so we can raise up musicians and worship leaders for the future.” Leonid requested that folks reading this article pray for the ministry of Kol L’Simcha. Musicians don’t necessarily make efficient managers and they could really use help with PR, booking engagements and fund raising.
This past June, Leonid turned 60. To celebrate his birthday the orchestra put on a splendid show. Interspersed throughout the performance were musical tributes to Leonid from his orchestra colleagues and students. As the evening drew to a close Eitan Shishkoff gathered the Gelbet family together to offer thanks to God and pray for continued blessing. Here is how Eitan summed up the significance of the evening: “Leonid’s 60th birthday celebration was an evening filled with the pleasure of beautiful music, warm fellowship and the realization that this man and his wife have made an impact over the years that continues to spread. How have they done it? Their “technique” is simple. They give themselves lovingly, equipping others to employ and enjoy the gifts God has given them. Here is a man who’s after neither worldly goods nor recognition. His satisfaction is in the training of others to express through music the love they have for Yeshua.”
God made Leonid to be a musician. He left all the trimmings of status and professional recognition to follow God’s call to Israel. But “a man’s gifts make room for him” and his faithfulness in the small things has been rewarded. As evident in Leonid’s character, the recipient of this reward is not so much the man himself, but all of us who have been enriched by his ministry.
By Marty Shoub