With singers stuck at home, Jerusalem Youth Chorus founder and director share songs and strategy in L.A.
Chorus’ leaders, Micah Hendler and Amer Abu Arqub, tour U.S. cities to discuss their organization’s work
Courtesy/Jerusalem Youth Chorus
With Israel and Hamas at war, the existing fissures between Israelis and Palestinians have widened into chasms, as both face a future fueled by pain, resentment and loss. But at the Jerusalem Youth Chorus, teens from East and West Jerusalem who would have ordinarily had few, if any, points of overlap are gathering around music, building relationships and community across difference, JYC founder Micah Hendler told a group of approximately 40 people at a fundraiser last month in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Through those relationships, Hendler said, chorus members get “a window into understanding each other’s realities, seeing the world through each other’s eyes, and then collectively raising their voices for a different, better, more inclusive, just, equal and peaceful future for their city and their nations.”
L.A.-based philanthropists Joshua and Lisa Greer hosted “Voices of Hope and Determination,” a gathering aimed at raising awareness of and support for the chorus. The event also served to introduce the audience to Amer Abu Arqub, who first joined JYC in 2014 and, in his words “never left” — he now serves as executive director of the chorus.
The chorus, which was formed in 2012, had been scheduled for a U.S. tour before the Oct. 7 terror attacks and would have involved approximately 30 singers. As they were unable to come because of the situation in Israel, Hendler and Abu Arqub were instead the main event at a series of evenings in major cities — Los Angeles was preceded by Washington, D.C., Chicago, New York City and followed by Boston — with more talking than singing, sharing their origin stories and perspectives on this fusion of music-making and bridge-building.
“Singing is one of the few human activities that actually releases oxytocin [known as the trust hormone] in the brain,” Hendler told eJewishPhilanthropy ahead of the event. “We are actually neurologically programmed to trust people more when we sing together. And so the fundamental sort of container-building that the chorus uses is that vehicle of establishing some trust and commonality.”
“We give agency and voice to our singers, by taking their stories and transforming them into songs,” Abu Arqub said. As an example, he recalled a songwriting prompt of “why do you sing?” which he had answered with a memory of an Israeli police officer who demanded that Abu Arqub sing to prove he wasn’t lying about going to chorus rehearsal. The incident, rendered in song and rap (“He forced me to sing before he let me go”), joined responses from other singers in “Don’t Need a Reason to Love,” the song they wrote together on the topic.
Hendler taught the event-goers a few songs in English, Hebrew and Arabic, an exercise that yielded a surprisingly fast, on-key and melodic ensemble, which was meant to demonstrate how music can unite people in shared purpose.
While dialogue and peace-making is intrinsically woven into the JYC fabric, most people who seek out the chorus aren’t there for the geopolitics, Hendler told eJP.
“Most of the people who come to the chorus don’t come because they want to make peace; they come because they want to sing and they want to make new friends,” Hendler said. “They want to find a circle that will accept them for who they are, on a personal level as a teenager. They want to travel internationally,” he said.
Hendler told eJP that the impact of JYC is felt by three spheres: by participants, their communities and the audiences. Hendler said that JYC’s annual budget is $500,000 and that most of the funding has come from individual donors, “who understand the power of music and who really care about this context and see what can be created.”
Their funders are from all faiths, he added, and JYC leadership wants to scale up their model for use in other cities in the region and globally. The evening at the Greers featured a request for support, both in boosting the organization’s visibility and to help it progress toward its$100,000 fundraising goal to help in its expansion efforts in the year ahead.
Abu Arqub grew up in a small West Bank village and moved to Jerusalem in sixth grade. He told attendees that he was drawn to the choir, even though he “had no musical talents.” After meeting Hendler, who spoke to him in Arabic, and guided him in learning beatboxing, Abu Arqub auditioned for the chorus and was accepted, but the dialogue portion of the program also provided a vital insight.
“[I realized] my reality isn’t the only reality actually in the room. My facts aren’t everyone’s facts. My experiences aren’t everyone’s experiences. So I understood that I needed to be more open about seeing different perspectives,” Al Arqub told the assembled.
After finishing high school, Abu Arqub stayed connected to JYC, serving in various capacities over the years even while earning his law degree and MBA. He became executive director in December 2022, and spent nearly a year developing a plan for the organization’s future. Then Oct. 7 changed everything, while reinforcing for both Hendler and Abu Arqub that their work was more necessary than ever.
“So many people are afraid, so many people are in pain,” said Hendler. “So many people are feeling totally unheard and silenced and unsafe being themselves. And what has been so striking to me is how few of the people in the Jewish community whom I talk to have those feelings know that the people in the Arab and Muslim community also us have those feelings and vice versa,” he said at the event, adding that “a natural response to trauma and threat is people retreat to their corners and protect their own.” This preceded an activity in which attendees who didn’t know each other were encouraged to discuss a moment when they felt unsafe showing up as themselves.
“The game that we’re playing — Israelis versus Palestinians, that somehow my safety must come at your expense or your success comes at the expense of my safety — is a game that we don’t have to play,” Hendler said at the event. “Fundamentally,” he added, “you have extremists on both sides who need each other to stay in power. They need each other and they feed each other and the normal people on both sides who may have lots of different opinions about a lot of different things have a lot of pain and intergenerational trauma but otherwise could maybe compromise…[if provided with] safety, dignity, agency and the ability to determine their own futures.”
“The saying that ‘constraints drive innovation’ was proven again tonight,” said Shawn Landres, co-founder of Jumpstart Labs, a nonprofit consulting group. “Unable to bring the chorus with them, Micah and Amer turned us into the chorus so we could directly — not vicariously — experience JYC’s approach to music and dialogue.”
“Sometimes it’s only art and shared storytelling that can create safe space for genuine conversations during crisis,” Zuzana Riemer Landres, a docent-educator at Holocaust Museum LA and Shawn’s wife, added.
“The way that we think about the role that our music is playing right now, is that we are trying to recenter common humanity as an important part of the discussion,” Hendler told eJP. “Because so much right now is sort of divided between us and them and everyone’s circles of concern have shrunk so drastically since the 7th. And so we’re really trying to use music as a way of helping people to reconnect to humanity across the conflict.”