Choir of Is­raeli and Pales­tinian teens brings har­monies to the U.S.

The Washington Post Sunday - - MUSIC - BY ROGER CATLIN style@wash­post.com

When Micah Hendler first went to Jerusalem with the idea of start­ing a choir of Is­raeli and Pales­tinian high-school­ers, some thought his no­tion naive at best.

But in the three years since the YMCA Jerusalem Youth Cho­rus was formed, the group has recorded with Is­raeli mu­si­cian-ac­tivist David Broza, gone on two in­ter­na­tional tours and is now on its first U.S. tour, which is bring­ing Hendler, 25, back to his Bethesda roots.

The tour be­gan last week at the Yale In­ter­na­tional Choral Fes­ti­val in New Haven, Conn., where Hendler earned de­grees in mu­sic and in­ter­na­tional stud­ies at Yale and was a mem­ber of the univer­sity’s famed a cap­pella groups the Whif­f­en­poofs and the Duke’s Men.

While in Washington, the Jerusalem Youth Cho­rus will per­form two free public con­certs— at the Kennedy Cen­ter’s Mil­len­nium Stage and at Hendler’s alma mater, Sid­well Friends. The group, whose reper­toire fea­tures songs in Ara­bic and He­brew as well as pieces from South Africa, the Amer­i­can South and the world of pop, also will travel to Bos­ton, New York and Philadelphia.

Hendler spoke with us re­cently from Jerusalem — where he was about to catch a bus to a voice les­son— about start­ing a youth choir in a re­gion marked by con­flict.

Was singing al­ways part of your life grow­ing up in Bethesda?

I’ve been singing since I was very small in a va­ri­ety of con­texts, both within the Jewish com­mu­nity and also more broadly. I sang with the Chil­dren’s Cho­rus of Washington. I sang when I was in mid­dle school, and I sang when I was at Sid­well.

For me, singing is not only a mode of self­ex­pres­sion or some­thing to do be­cause it’s fun . . . it’s away of con­nect­ing with oth­ers. Specif­i­cally, as I grewup and I started my own singing groups, I saw that I could use group singing as away of cre­at­ing com­mu­nity.

Around the same time when I was in high school, I went to Seeds of Peace [in Maine], which is a sum­mer camp and di­a­logue pro­gram for teens from con­flict re­gions all over the world, specif­i­cally fo­cused on Mid­dle East, Is­raeli/Arab is­sues. . . . In the con­text of a sum­mer camp vibe, you have a fa­cil­i­tated di­a­logue process where you ac­tu­ally go into the po­lit­i­cal, the his­tor­i­cal, the re­li­gious is­sues, the vi­o­lence, the daily ex­pe­ri­ence of what it’s like to live in a re­gion of con­flict and al­ways be­ing close to your en­emy.

At the same time you’re talk­ing about all these re­ally dif­fi­cult is­sues, these are the same peo­ple who helped you score a goal in soc­cer, or who helped you come up with what­ever song in mu­sic class, or what­ever it is. So the com­bi­na­tion of these in­ter­per­sonal ac­tiv­i­ties, in terms of how you re­late to these peo­ple whom you never met be­fore, it’s very, very strong in terms of cre­at­ing trans­for­ma­tion both be­cause you re­late to the other teenagers as peo­ple, but also un­der­stand­ing where they come from and what their daily ex­pe­ri­ences are and what they bring with them.

You use fa­cil­i­tated dis­cus­sion in the Jerusalem Youth Cho­rus, too. Does the singing help­make that pos­si­ble?

Par­tic­u­larly when you’re in a singing group — whether it’s in sum­mer camp and you’re singing camp songs, or you’re in Jerusalem— there’s some­thing that hap­pens with the per­form­ing ensem­ble. There’s re­ally a great amount of con­nec­tion that hap­pens both in­ter­per­son­ally be­tween in­di­vid­u­als and also in terms of the feel­ing of a group that helps cre­ate a con­tain­ing space for some re­ally trans­for­ma­tive di­a­logue work to hap­pen.

How re­cep­tive were peo­ple when you went to Jerusalem with this idea?

Some­times I would en­counter gen­eral skep­ti­cism about what sort of im­pact it might have or whether any­one would join. And some peo­ple’s pol­i­tics were so op­posed to the idea of peo­ple even meet­ing that they op­posed the idea of a cho­rus with it.

I got there in July 2012 and pre­pared my­self psy­cho­log­i­cally, think­ing, “Okay, if I have five singers signed up by Jan­uary, I’m do­ing okay.” And by Oc­to­ber, we had 80. From those 80 au­di­tions, we se­lected about 35, and we re­hearsed and per­formed through­out that first year. By the end of our sec­ond year, we were tour­ing in­ter­na­tion­ally.

Have you seen some small and large ef­fects from your work?

Ab­so­lutely. Our con­certs are pow­er­ful not only be­cause we do re­ally in­ter­est­ing and in­no­va­tive mu­si­cal cul­tural fu­sion, but be­cause you can tell the kids love each other. That’s what makes the per­for­mances so mov­ing. Our singers are not pro­fes­sional mu­si­cians, they’re not par­tic­u­larly dis­ci­plined, they don’t nec­es­sar­ily stand like a clas­si­cal choir. But you can tell in the per­for­mances that they love what they’re do­ing, love per­form­ing to­gether and love be­ing to­gether.

Were there times when you thought it wouldn’t work?

Last sum­mer with the war in Gaza and in Jerusalem, it was a re­ally hard time for us. It was a re­ally hard time for ev­ery­one. But par­tic­u­larly what was go­ing on in Jerusalem in terms of vi­o­lence on the street, and vig­i­lante at­tacks against young peo­ple, it was very close to home.

The day af­ter [17-year-old Pales­tinian] Mo­ham­mad [Abu] Khieder was killed [af­ter three Is­raeli teens were kid­napped and killed], we hap­pened to have a re­hearsal sched­uled be­cause we were get­ting ready for our first tour of Ja­pan. I was de­bat­ing whether to have the re­hearsal or to can­cel it. I didn’t know if any­one would come. I didn’t know if any Pales­tini­ans would come. At the end of the day, I de­cided to have the re­hearsal be­cause, even if only three peo­ple came, the fact thatwe were still meet­ing was very im­por­tant. About half of the kids came, in­clud­ing half of the Pales­tinian kids. And about a half-hour later, this girl came through the door from Shuafat [where Abu Khieder lived and was ab­ducted]. It later erupted in ri­ot­ing and po­lice vi­o­lence, and the whole neigh­bor­hood was shut down. There was a cur­fe­wand you couldn’t get out. I didn’t know phys­i­cally how this girl got to re­hearsal.

I asked her dur­ing a break and she said, “Well, I woke up this morn­ing to gun­shots and tear gas and ev­ery­one was go­ing crazy. And I was sit­ting inmy house, los­ing my mind, and at a cer­tain point, I couldn’t take it any­more. So I left, and walked down the street and sol­diers tried to stop me and I ran away.” . . . And she said, “This is ex­actly where I want to be.” For me, the idea that even in that kind of cir­cum­stance, that kind of im­mi­nent vi­o­lence and in­jus­tice and ev­ery­thing that’s wrong about what’s go­ing on here, at its most in­tense, that a place where she would feel at home was in a bi­na­tional group of kids her age that were work­ing to­gether to change that sit­u­a­tion, couldn’t pos­si­bly have been a greater tes­ta­ment to the fact that we’re do­ing things right.

What kinds of re­ac­tion do you get from au­di­ences?

The re­cep­tion from our au­di­ences has been over­whelm­ingly pos­i­tive at ev­ery sin­gle per­for­mance. Even if we mess up the notes or are miss­ing half of the so­pra­nos, or what­ever is go­ing on, peo­ple are re­ally moved con­sis­tently by our per­for­mances, be­cause we re­ally have suc­ceeded in cre­at­ing on a very small scale an al­ter­nate re­al­ity.

Have there been some stum­bles?

Of course. Par­tic­u­larly start­ing a new pro­gram in a city where I ama for­eigner and work­ing in two for­eign lan­guages. I started this pro­gram when I was 23. I grad­u­ated from col­lege and moved to Jerusalem and tried to start this pro­gram, so of course I made tons of mis­takes.

But the mis­takes we made tended to be more in terms of pro­gram man­age­ment, as op­posed to po­lit­i­cal. Be­cause re­ally, what could doom some­thing like this was po­lit­i­cal mis­steps such that one side or the other feels like you’re be­ing bi­ased and there­fore they lose trust, and I didn’t make those mis­takes. And that, I think, has been what’s re­ally en­abled us to be suc­cess­ful.

Catlin is a free­lance writer.

The YMCA Jerusalem Youth Cho­rus Wed­nes­day

at 7 p.m. with the Chil­dren’s Cho­rus of Washington and the Sid­well Friends School Cham­ber Cho­rus at Sid­well Friends School, 3825Wis­con­sin Ave. NW, and Fri­day at 6 p.m. at the Kennedy Cen­ter Mil­len­nium Stage, 2700 F St. NW. Both con­certs are free. Visit www.jerusale­my­outh­cho­rus.org.

MI­DORI S. INOUE

The YMCA Jerusalem Youth Cho­rus, un­der the di­rec­tion of for­mer Bethesda res­i­dent Micah Hendler, per­forms in Tokyo. The group will present two free public con­certs in Washington this week — at the Kennedy Cen­ter’s Mil­len­nium Stage and at Hendler’s alma mater, Sid­well Friends.

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