This Israeli & Palestinian youth choir has sung together since 2012. Now, their voices are stronger than ever

An illustration of a chorus with a leader at the front

Growing up, Micah Hendler gravitated toward musical communities where he “wouldn’t be picked on.” As a self-described “pretty awkward” guy, singing was the one thing that made him feel confident and included.

Also during his adolescence, Hendler was untangling what he described as a “very one-sided narrative about Israel and Palestine,” that he was taught in his early years. He went to a summer camp called Seeds of Peace, which gathered teams from conflict regions for a dialogue program. 

And then something clicked: What if these two things — music and dialogue — could be used together? What if music was dialogue? 

A bald white man with rectangular classes speaks into a microphone on stage. He is wearing a dark blue collared shirt and black blazer and stands in front of a light blue backdrop
Micah Handler speaks at TED2024. Photo courtesy of Ryan Lash / TED

Based on the photo of Hendler on his website, where he flashes a kind smile and wears a graphic T-shirt with an image of a guitar that reads Woody Guthrie’s signature “this machine kills fascists,” it’s clear he’s found his answer.

“I quickly learned I had the power to create spaces of belonging for people,” he told Good Good Good.

Hendler — who had grown up studying Hebrew — pursued an education in music, international studies, Arabic, and cultural traditions in college. 

His senior research thesis was focused on whether his experience at that summer camp could be replicated on the ground in Jerusalem. 

Bridging divides between East and West Jerusalem

Jerusalem, a holy city for nearly all major world religions, was divided into two sections by the United Nations in 1948. 

West Jerusalem’s population mostly consists of Israelis (many of whom are Jewish), and East Jerusalem is made up mostly of Palestinians (many of whom are Muslim or Christian). Israel claims the whole of Jerusalem as its capital, while Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the capital of a future, unoccupied state. 

Jerusalem is a hub for people of all religious backgrounds — and represents a particularly fertile ground for the decades-long conflict between Israel and Palestine.

Hendler founded the Jerusalem Youth Chorus in 2012, with the aim to bridge the gap between youth living in East and West Jerusalem. 

A youth chorus stands together and smiles for a group photo inside of a temple. They are all wearing t-shirts in different colors.
Photo courtesy of the Jerusalem Youth Chorus

“The longer I did dialogue work, the more I saw that music, and specifically singing groups, could play the same kind of role in building community and creating a shared identity, even in these contexts where people are ostensibly in existential conflict with one another,” Hendler said. 

“Music is a communication technology.”

He has grown JYC for over a decade, but when Hamas attacked Israeli civilians on October 7, 2023 — and Israel’s occupation in Palestine subsequently escalated to its most violent extremes — the future of the organization hung in the balance.

A screenshot of the Jerusalem Youth chorus singing remotely in a web chat screen
Members and alumni of the Jerusalem Youth Chorus singing remotely. Photo courtesy of the Jerusalem Youth Chorus

Hendler said he and his team were prepared to hit the brakes, but after a few remote meetings with families and singers, everyone came to a consensus: The chorus was needed now more than ever.

“Everybody said in one voice: ‘we have to keep meeting,’” Hendler said. 

“Over the last 12 years, some parents have been very supportive, some of them have been sort of neutral, and some have been outright a problem or have pulled their kids for political or religious reasons. But the fact that all of the parents were like ‘This is vital. This is good for my child,’ they really stepped up to help make it happen.”

Hendler said the chorus is usually made up equally of singers from both East and West Jerusalem, or “as close to half-and-half as possible.” That means finding a shared space to rehearse requires support. 

Parents began organizing carpools to help singers from both parts of the city safely reach their weekly practices. While the majority of Israel’s bombardment of Palestinians has taken place in North Gaza and Rafah, Jerusalem is certainly not free of risk. The singers know that.

“There’s been a remarkable rate of commitment of people on both sides to this,” Hendler said, proudly sharing that the JYC has met every week since October 7.

Music as a shared language

And the meetings are largely the same as they’ve always been. Each gathering begins with a dialogue exercise, which is followed by a music rehearsal, and then rounded out with another session of dialogue.

Hendler calls the singing both a “warm-up” and “cool-down” from the dialogue process. 

A group of people sits in a dialogue circle in a room filled with golden curtains
JYC rehearsals begin and end with dialogue exercises. Photo courtesy of Jerusalem Youth Chorus

Some of these conversations have included story-sharing from grandparents who were forcibly removed from Palestinian villages in 1948, or talking about the traumas of the current moment — all with the help of professional facilitators who guide young people through conflict.

“Maybe they had a difficult experience on the way to rehearsal. Maybe they were stopped at a checkpoint. Maybe there was a bomb threat on the train. Maybe they were tear-gassed. All of these things have happened to our singers. Maybe they’re coming in a way that’s a bit on edge, a bit distrustful … because someone literally made them feel afraid for their lives on the other side,” he said. 

“And then they come, and there’s a way in which singing is this sort of attunement to each other. The way that it reverberates in our body, and the way you’re creating something beautiful together … it rearranges us.” 

In fact, following the October 7 attacks, the group’s high school chorus penned a moving piece called “A Different Way.” 

Hendler and Amer Abu Arqub, the executive director of the JYC, introduced the song — which is sung in English, Arabic, and Hebrew — during a TED Talk in April of 2024

A Palestinian man stands on stage speaking into a microphone. He has short dark hair and round glasses and wears a brown scarf over a collared shirt and blazer
Amer Abu Arqub speaks at TED2024. Photo courtesy of Ryan Lash / TED

“We reject war, occupation, and terror. And instead, we decided to sing for peace, justice, inclusion, and equality,” Abu Arqub said. “At JYC, we don’t share the same opinions, and we disagree and have hard conversations about them every week. But what we do share is a shared future, despite what politicians say.”

“We know that as a Palestinian and Israeli chorus, we don’t single-handedly have the power to stop the war,” Hendler added. “But we also know that the reason war continues is because people feel that there isn’t a different way.”

Together, they said: “We are the different way.”

“When the day is done, what will be left behind? / Only you and me, with our futures intertwined,” the JYC sang in a recorded performance. “We live within the wars / we feel each other’s pain / Because of you, I know / We must choose a different way.”

That common bond, while strengthened by current events, has been at the heart of JYC since its inception. In fact, Abu Arqub was a member of the chorus 10 years ago, and like many other staff members, went from alum to leader. 

“Last year, I was so proud to step into the executive director role with a vision to create a youth singing movement,” Abu Arqub said, “to help youth find their voices across Israel and Palestine, as I found mine.”

A common goal to create peace

At this point of inflection, Hendler said the organization is growing and eager to work with other groups of people who want to replicate the healing work of music and dialogue in the face of conflict. But, he cautioned: This work has to be done correctly. 

It’s critical to have dialogue space in peace-making work, he said, but it’s also vital to have the “connective tissue” of creativity and humanity — like music. 

“Where’s the soul in this? Where are you as a human being and not just as a political representative?” Hendler posed.

Conversely, if a group is only attempting to bridge their divides through music, he said it can “do damage to sing and then pretend that that’s enough.”

Micah Hendler and Amer Abu Arqub stand side-by-side on the TED stage
Micah Handler and Amer Abu Arqub speak at TED2024. Photo courtesy of Ryan Lash / TED

The place where singing and bridge-building come together? With a common goal. For JYC singers, that goal is maintaining their important relationships and agency as young people — but also to succeed in creating good and meaningful music that can reach other parts of the world. To create “a soundtrack for the revolution,” as Hendler put it.

“If you think about any of the research that’s been done on intergroup conflict, you need a common goal,” Hendler explained. “That’s key, because then people feel like we have to succeed at this thing together. It redefines ‘who is us?’” 

The JYC has had many milestones in its 12 years, including collaborations with artists like Ziggy Marley and Andy Grammer, as well as performances on late-night shows in the U.S. The group was also featured on “America’s Got Talent,” and was about to embark on a tour in late October 2023 — before things changed. 

A group of young people stand together for a group photo with their hands in the air
Photo courtesy of the Jerusalem Youth Chorus

Though the world around them is in disarray, the JYC knows the potential of their voices — especially to be a blueprint to anyone else looking for a way out of intolerance and hate.

“What’s making me hopeful is the fact that the chorus is thriving right now,” Hendler said. “And it’s not because the singers, the staff, all of us aren’t experiencing a whole lot of trauma. But it’s because we’ve decided that there’s a different way to live in response to that trauma — a way that doesn’t recreate it for other people. That is a source of immense power.”

A version of this article was originally published in The Music Edition of the Goodnewspaper.

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July 5, 2024 3:52 PM
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