With more than 400,000 views on YouTube, the video of the Phillip Phillips song “Home” as performed by the YMCA Jerusalem Youth Chorus depicts the Israeli capital as thriving without any political, ethnic or sectarian divisions.
“With the state of the world and the state of Israel and Palestine today, people are depressed and cynical and looking for hope and signs of humanity and the possibilities for people to work together,” says Micah Hendler, founder and director of the chorus. “That’s what this chorus represents, and that is the experience we create when we perform.”
On March 14 at noon, Hendler, who grew up in Bethesda, will meet with members of Baltimore’s Jewish community at a private Owings Mills residence to share his experiences with the chorus and provide information on the program.
Founded by Hendler in 2012, the chorus is a combination of a singing and dialogue program based at the Jerusalem International YMCA. Consisting of Israeli and Palestinian high school singers from East and West Jerusalem, the group offers a safe space for members to discuss their commonalities and differences.
“The coolest thing is to see is that despite political, cultural and social barriers how many high school students are excited about the chorus and want to audition,” says Hendler. “If you look at people only as political objects, you see only part of their possibilities and opportunities.”
Currently, there are approximately 30 singers in the chorus, with an extensive alumni base. The group has an equal number of Jewish and Arab singers. Among the Arab singers, a third are Christian and an equal number are Muslim.
“Most of the members join because they love to sing, and then the dialogue piece is required,” says Hendler, 29, who graduated from Yale University with a degree in music and international studies. “Dialogue can be difficult. People in our chorus believe in very different things but they all love to sing, so they come to do that and then the dialogue piece falls into place and ends up being powerful in ways they didn’t expect.”
Hendler travels around the world to talk about the chorus and its objective to break down barriers. The Mediterranean lunch in Owings Mills is open to anyone interested in learning more about the project.
“This is an opportunity for the community to learn about the work we are doing, engage with it, ask questions and share ideas,” Hendler says. “This is a way people can invest in the future of Jerusalem. There is also a lot of bridge-building and dialogue that needs to happen in the United States, and I hope to find a way to apply what we are doing in Jerusalem to some of the context we find ourselves here in the U.S.”
Hendler — who was named in 2017 as one of Forbes magazine’s “30 Under 30” – says music and studying regions with conflict have played a central role in his life. Growing up, he spent his summers at Seeds of Peace, a summer camp in Maine focused on engaging with new generations of leaders in conflicted regions. (The chorus is a Seeds of Peace project.)
“What I learned at camp was how the musical competence of community building played a huge role and created a shared identity among people who were supposed to have nothing in common and hate each other,” he says. “When I saw how the two could work together in this context and have an amazing impact, I knew it’s what I wanted to do.”
The chorus has performed for audiences around the world, including Germany’s president, at the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center and on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.” One member, Eden Alene, won “The X Factor Israel” TV music competition.
“Our singers feel a sense of empowerment and a sense their voices matter because … powerful people want to listen to them,” says Hendler. “They also have a greater sense of openness and understanding that there are multiple perspectives to different issues, and that there isn’t always one right answer. Different opinions are valid, and having the skills to have difficult discussions is moving to see.”
Hendler says he’s witnessed how the intersection of music and dialogue can make a difference.
“In the summer of 2014, our singers were put under intense pressure by the violence taking place in Gaza and in Jerusalem,” he says. “What we saw was that our singers demanded more dialogue sessions during this time. When you have a dialogue space to process conflict and learn about the situation, people are more likely to maintain relationships with those who have differing opinions.”
Aliza Friedlander is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.