“At all times, you should be listening.” This is Micah Hendler’s ’12 advice to his teenage choristers as they warm up their vocal cords with the English vowel sounds: “ah,” “ay,” “ee,” “oh” and “oo.” The advice is meant to improve cohesion between voices and could be given to any choir, but, to the Jerusalem Youth Chorus, it means so much more.
Conflict around Jerusalem, an ancient metropolis that Christians, Jews and Muslims consider a holy city and a home, has existed for centuries. Religious tensions and disputes over land ownership continue to plague the region. The latest fighting on the Gaza Strip, during eight days in November 2012, claimed six Israeli and 169 Palestinian lives.
Despite the ongoing conflict, 30 Israeli and Palestinian teenagers meet at the Jerusalem YMCA each Monday for choir rehearsal, followed by political dialogue sessions conducted in Hebrew and Arabic. The Jerusalem Youth Chorus, founded and directed by Hendler, is in its inaugural season. These 30 students are its first members.
Today, they are singing a four-part a cappella arrangement of the Ysaye M. Barnwell song “Wanting Memories.” Hendler gets them started with a pitch from his pipe and gives the beat by snapping his fingers. He asks them to practice the opening several times until they can sing it in unison.
Hendler was raised in Maryland, where he attended a Jewish school through sixth grade and studied Hebrew. In high school, he spent summers at the Seeds of Peace International Camp for Coexistence, a three-week program in Maine that drew most of its students from the Middle East, but also included a small American delegation.
The campers sang together and discussed their perspectives on pressing political conflicts. As a “Seed,” Hendler became more open-minded about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and was struck by the power of music as a means of building common ground.
“Singing is the way that I am happiest, the way that I find friends, the way that I find community,” he says.
Inspired by his experience at Seeds of Peace, Hendler began to dream of starting a youth choir in the Middle East. Singing would serve as a common ground upon which Israeli and Palestinian students could bond. Upon this musical platform, they could partake in political dialogue in order to better understand each other’s perspectives and promote peacemaking.
When Hendler came to Yale, he found guidance and support for his idea from Dr. Sarah Weiss of the Yale Music Department, who would become his academic adviser. “He was going to attempt this project against giant political odds,” says Weiss, who says she considered Hendler a “pragmatic idealist.” Still, Weiss admired Hendler’s commitment to music and the thoughtful way he was going about the project. She encouraged him to study Arabic and helped him to plan his coursework. “Even though I was worried about his idealism, I am not at all surprised that this is working out,” she says.
Hendler also sang with the Duke’s Men and the Whiffenpoofs, helped coordinate the International Choral Festival at Yale, and led the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life’s “Shabbat Unplugged” service. Dr. Jeffrey Douma, director of the Yale Glee Club, helped Hendler hone his conducting skills.
“This is probably his destiny,” said Rabbi James Ponet, who worked with Hendler at the Slifka Center. “He loves music.”
Hendler wrote his senior thesis — for a double major in music and international studies — analyzing several groups’ efforts to use music for conflict resolution. The thesis helped him develop his own plan to found the Jerusalem Youth Chorus. In the spring of his senior year, he began an extensive networking process and sought much-needed funding. From his work in coordinating the Middle East portion of the Whiffenpoofs’ world tour the previous year, Hendler understood that founding a choir in Jerusalem would involve significant groundwork, so he moved to Jerusalem in July 2012 to give himself ample time to continue his planning and networking. “I learned that I needed to expect the unexpected,” he said.
September was dedicated to auditions, and Hendler visited over a dozen schools to spread the word about his choir. Although he did not hide the choir’s peacemaking mission, Hendler encouraged students to audition with additional incentives. Participation in the choir would give students the opportunities to learn to sing and speak English, he explained. The students would be able to express themselves through concert music and music videos. Hendler also mentioned the possibility of an international tour in the summer.
Hendler was thrilled when 80 students tried out for his choir. During auditions, he evaluated students’ voice qualities and interviewed them, seeking members who would contribute positive energy to the group. Hendler also tried to gauge students’ perspectives on “the other side” to determine whether they would be open-minded about collaborating with students from the opposing political group. Prior singing experience was not required: of the 30 students selected to join the choir, only three knew how to read music.
So far, the choir has received little opposition. Only a handful of Israelis on the far political right who Hendler consulted are skeptical of the choir’s ability to succeed, but they have not said they are against it. Some Palestinians expressed concern to Hendler that the choir promotes “normalization” and ignores the inequality between the two societies that they believe lies at the heart of the conflict. Still, some are supportive. “I found more support than I expected from both sides,” Hendler said.
Hendler is aware that his students may receive criticism in the future as they continue performing and drawing attention from the public. “I need to make sure that the kids love the program enough to defend it, even if they are taking criticism from the community for being part of it,” he says.
And they do love it. In rehearsal, the students applaud themselves after everything they sing. Hendler hopes that the choir will be able to tour internationally next summer. Some day, he hopes to take them to Yale.
The Jerusalem Youth Chorus sang its debut concert on Dec. 22 at the Jerusalem YMCA. On Dec. 24, the high schoolers performed again for an audience of 600. Dressed in black pants and shirts of various colors, the students stood in a close semicircle. Their eyes were focused on Hendler, who raised his arms to guide the singers through the words:
“I know a ‘please,’ a ‘thank you’ and a smile will take me far. I know that I am you and you are me and we are one. I know that who I am is numbered in each grain of sand. I know that I’ve been blessed again, and over again.”
Their confidence was unmistakable. As the last chord faded away, the audience answered the Jerusalem Youth Chorus’ pitch for peace with loud and earnest applause.