By Robin Owens
for eJewish Philanthropy
Take one major orchestra, one big-city Jewish Federation and one top chef, put them together and get a recipe for a cultural trip to Israel that reinforces not only the longtime bond between the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, but also the relationship that each has with the state of Israel.
The June 1-7 trip, which brought 140 orchestra performers and staff, along with 60 orchestra patrons and Jewish Federation mission participants, combined concert performances and musical residencies with sightseeing, cultural events and a visit to the Jewish Federation’s Partnership2Gether region of Netivot and Sdot Negev. It marked only the second time the Philadelphia Orchestra has performed in the Jewish state. The orchestra previously performed in Israel in 1992. The orchestra also celebrated Israel’s 50th and 60th anniversaries with concert programs in Philadelphia.
This 70th anniversary “tour and mission reinforced the strong connection that already exists between Philadelphia and Israel, and we intentionally packed each day with a variety of ways in which the trip’s cultural and musical activities further knit the two together,” said Naomi Adler, the Jewish Federation’s CEO, who also noted that Tel Aviv and Philadelphia have been “sister cities” since 1966.
The trip, which included concerts at the Haifa Auditorium, the Charles Bronfman Auditorium in Tel Aviv and the Ussishkin Auditorium in Jerusalem, all led by Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, was not without controversy as the orchestra had faced pressure from BDS activists to cancel in the weeks leading up to the tour. The criticism didn’t deter the orchestra. “We received an extremely warm welcome in Israel. The packed auditoriums of diverse music lovers experiencing the unifying power of music were a true exemplification of our mission,” said Ryan Fleur, the orchestra’s interim president. “We are grateful to the Jewish Federation of Philadelphia for partnering with us in this incredibly meaningful endeavor.”
Prior to the trip, Fleur defended the tour in an opinion piece in The [Philadelphia] Inquirer. “The U.S. State Department, with which the orchestra works closely, has told us our appearances help bring people together on the path to a long-term peace process,” he said. “That kind of cultural diplomacy is an integral part of our mission; it’s about using music to communicate, where other dialogue cannot.”
That cultural diplomacy included a “Side-by-Side” concert at Tel Aviv University with musicians from both the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Israel Philharmonic, students from TAU’s Buchmann-Mehta School of Music Symphony Orchestra and members of the Outstanding Musicians of the Israel Defense Forces program. It also included a visit to Neve Shalom, “Oasis of Peace,” a cooperative village founded by Israeli Jews and Arabs.
Among the orchestra’s concert offerings were symphonies in honor of composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein’s centennial. Bernstein had conducted symphonies in Israel numerous times, including six months after Israel’s independence in 1948 and just one month after the Six-Day War in 1967. Bernstein also had performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1948. This year, the orchestrahas been celebrating his centennial with a series of concert works throughout the season and issued a CD of Bernstein’s Mass.
“It was a joy to watch the orchestra perform in Israel, but it was truly special to see many of their musicians experiencing Israel for the first time as they traveled through the country,” said Joe Neubauer, whose Neubauer Family Foundation, along with Philadelphia philanthropist and former Jewish Federation vice chair Constance “Connie” Smukler, sponsored the orchestra’s visit. “I know Israel and its people created meaningful, lasting impressions on everyone involved,” Neubauer said.
That touring included a focus on projects in the Jewish Federation’s partnership region, Netviot and Sdot Negev, which in the past two decades has received more than $10 million from Jewish Federation.
That’s where Israeli-born Philadelphia Chef Michael Solomonov came in. Solomonov, the James Beard award-winning chef whose Zahav restaurant featuring modern Israeli cuisine has become one of Philadelphia’s hottest eateries, put together a culinary tour to introduce patrons to the foods of the Negev. In various presentations, Solomonov focused on preserving culture through food. That included a program with Tavilinim, a catering cooperative of some 25 women primarily from Morocco, Tunisia and Ethiopia known to American supporters as the “Spice Girls.” Their cooking enterprise is supported by the Jewish Federation, as was their 2012 cookbook, The Jewish Kitchen Diaries: A Journey Through Time and Culture.
Participants, including 18 on their first visit to Israel, also got a behind-the-scenes look at innovations in science, health and technology at the Birthright Israel Innovation Center, where they heard from Laura Gilinski and Wendy Singer of Start-Up Nation Central, Inna Braverman of Eco Wave Power and Or Retzkin of EyeControl.
Smukler called the visit “the trip of a lifetime.”
“I’ve had an enduring love affair with Israel and our great orchestra for many years. It’s been my honor to support this incredible journey with my family, including all nine of my grandchildren,” she said.