WAMU 88.5, Washington`s NPR station, had a feature story of Rumi Forum`s 2023 Dialogue Award recipient, Micah Hendler, and presenter, Aziz Abu Sarah, on its homepage, including an interview with Rumi Forum`s Executive Director, Ibrahim Anli.

This story appeared on WAMU 88.5 and DCist.com.

By Héctor Alejandro Arzate and Tyrone Turner

November 17, 2023

In 2012, Bethesda native Micah Hendler co-founded the Jerusalem Youth Chorus to build unity in Jerusalem by bringing together young people from the divided eastern and western ends of the historic city. The project is just as important now, Hendler says.

Even as war has raged between Israel and Hamas since Oct. 7, this group of Palestinian and Israeli young people have continued to meet once a week for rehearsal as a way to create dialogue between their cultures.

The singers, who speak a mix of Arabic, Hebrew, and English, do more than just sing. They trade stories with one another and develop friendships. And they haven’t quit, says Hendler, even in the face of a conflict that has killed thousands, along with increased challenges to local free speech and safety, not to mention personal tensions.

“Music is a very emotional language that can really get past, sometimes, people’s preconceptions or people’s armor in a lot of ways,” says Hendler, who is Jewish and lives in Washington, D.C.

That’s the point of the project, he says — to build connections between Israelis and Palestinian youth in spite of the divisions they might face. They try to create a safe space for them to shed light on systemic violence and injustice, instead of pitting one group against the other.

“It’s not that somehow the differences stop existing or we pretend that they’re not important but they become, not the whole picture,” says Hendler, a lifelong musician who was raised in Bethesda. He first began working in peace activism in Jerusalem and the region in the early 2000s, which inspired the chorus and its mission.

While singing together is crucial, it might be the dialogue between the members beforehand that defines the project. Each rehearsal reserves time for the members to open up about themselves, their culture, and their lived-experiences. For many, says Hendler, it’s often the first time that they’ve interacted in this way.

“It’s also not just [that] the music is over here and the dialogue is this other thing and they have nothing to do with each other. We really try to weave the two together as much as we can,” says Hendler, who supports the chorus in the role of artistic director from his home in D.C. and has passed the day-to-day management to alumni in Jerusalem.

Many of their original songs are written as a result of these shared dialogues, and they don’t shy away from the reality of living through conflict. For example, a song from last year called “Reason to Love,” was written about the experience that one of the chorus members had, Hendler says.

“One of our Palestinian members was stopped and harassed by police on the way to rehearsal and was made to sing before the police would let him go,” says Hendler. The song also represents the chorus’ collaborative process. “Reason to Love” was performed in Arabic, Hebrew, and English. It also features elements of music styles from the Middle East. And the song’s title is a reference to the Jewish tradition of “ahavat chinam,” meaning baseless love.

“The idea that — even when we are not given a reason to respond with love — that we can choose to do so anyway, is a very powerful concept. That’s really what the song is about,” Hendler says.

That aspect of music-making is really important because it means that the songs are written by and performed for the communities they are about, says Aziz Abu Sarah, a friend of Hendler’s whose tour company often works with JYC.

“You are creating real music and helping people to express themselves in a different variety, but also in ways that the locals can listen to it,” says Abu Sarah, who is Palestinian and grew up in Jerusalem.

“Olam Chesed Yibaneh” by the Jerusalem Youth Chorus

Abu Sarah is also a peace activist; over the years, he’s become a supporter of the chorus for its mission.

“We can’t necessarily force politicians to make peace, but we can create an alternative to the current reality and say, ‘What you are selling to our peoples? That death is the only path, is not true.’ And this is an example that shows you that it is definitely not true,” says Abu Sarah.

Last week, he presented an award to Hendler from the Rumi Forum, a D.C. interfaith nonprofit with a focus on peace. The organization had planned to present Hendler with the award for his work to build a “stronger” community in Jerusalem long before war broke out, says Rumi Forum executive director Ibrahim Anli. But highlighting the JYC, he says, might be even more important now.

“The Jerusalem Youth Chorus is one landmark project happening in a very challenging setting and, unquestionably, during very challenging times,” says Anli. “But it’s also a powerful testimony to how those challenging moments and context can be navigated by introducing projects that welcome the human being, call for empathy, recognize people as individuals, and recognize their stories.”

The chorus is a vision of a future for Jerusalem — and more broadly, Israel and Palestine — that is no longer defined by the division and violence that has plagued it for more than 75 years, Hendler says.

It doesn’t always come easy, though. Last month, the chorus had to cancel a performance in D.C. due to the war in their region. But they pivoted and conducted a virtual concert with the Kennedy Center instead. It’s also gotten more difficult for the members to gather in person as violence has grown across the region, including in Jerusalem, says Hendler. But they carry on because of what the chorus means to them and their families.

“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” by the Jerusalem Youth Chorus

“Keeping those spaces active are very very important,” said Amer Abu Arqub, a Palestinian graduate of the chorus and its executive director in Jerusalem, said during the virtual concert.

One chorus member named Dana, who is Palestinian and doesn’t want her full name used due to personal safety concerns, said during the virtual concert that music is one of her tools to work toward peace and humanizing her life and that of others. She sang “Zombie” by the Cranberries as a dedication to all the lives that have been lost so far.

“I may not be able to reach every soldier and prove that I’m a human worthy of living, and I may not be loud enough to sing for the entire world to hear, but I believe in the power of choir and I believe in the power of community,” she said.

While Hendler acknowledges that they can’t singlehandedly stop the cycle of violence, the chorus and many of its members and alumni won’t give up, he says.

“We can help people to stay in touch with one another’s humanity, even across the extraordinary divides that are just getting wider and wider every minute,” says Hendler.