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 self-expression or something to do because it’s fun . . . it’s a way of connecting with others. Specifically, as I grew up and I started my own singing groups, I saw that I could use group singing as a way 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 help make 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 that we 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 curfew and 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 in my 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 am a 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, 3825 Wisconsin 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.