Bethesda native Micah Hendler is the founder and director of the Jerusalem Youth Chorus, which brings together Israeli and Palestinian teens. On the neutral turf of the Jerusalem International YMCA, the youths discuss their differences but unite as a multicultural chorus.
Hendler, 29, has been singing since childhood — at Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County and elsewhere. He attended Seeds of Peace, a camp and dialogue program in Maine, with Palestinian, Israeli and other youths from conflict areas. After graduating from Yale University, he went to Jerusalem to see if the development of shared identity that he enjoyed in Seeds’ controlled setting could be created through a chorus in the reality of Jerusalem. He splits his time between Jerusalem and the District.
How do you arrange and select music to reflect the multicultural composition of the chorus?
The trick is A, trying to figure out how everyone is represented in the music that we sing, B, how to find ways to honor everybody’s culture both on its own terms and also experimenting with where the hooks are in between traditions, how we can take songs from one tradition and maybe mash them up with a song from another.
One of the arrangements on our album is of “Rolling in the Deep,” by Adele. We do it in the style of Umm Kulthum, who is a very famous Egyptian classical Arabic singer. We take this Western pop song and turn it on its head and do it in an Eastern style. That is something that all the singers in the group loved. The people who loved Adele though it was really cool, and the people who liked Arabic music thought it was cool that we were doing this Adele song in their style.
What else do you do with the students?
We have a four-hour rehearsal once a week that consists of singing, [facilitated] dialogue and singing. In many ways the music is a warmup and a cool down emotionally from the dialogue process. The music helps everyone to stay together. Without the dialogue we wouldn’t really be doing our job.
In the summer of 2014, where you had the war in Gaza and there were rockets falling on Jerusalem and there were vigilante terrorist actions on both sides directed toward teens in the Jerusalem area — some of whom the kids in the chorus knew or were two degrees of separation from — the singers in that moment demanded more dialogue sessions. That was a really incredible thing.…The singers were like, “How could you write that [on Facebook]? We need to talk, I need you to understand how this was really hurtful to me.”
Are you promoting any particular solution?
No. We are an educational space. We are trying to give people the tools to try to come to their own conclusions, learn for themselves, learn from each other and in a context of values and in a context of mutual respect in a context of seeing the power and trying to work together and achieve things. Everyone will take that in whatever way they will.
What are your plans for 2019?
We have been invited back to perform at the UN in Geneva.
I’m also thinking about how to take this model where you take community building plus the deepening that happens in the dialogue process and apply it to many of the problems and divisions and difficulties that we have here in the U.S.
I do have an idea that I have been working on with someone who works on Capitol Hill of starting a dialogue chorus of members of Congress and staffers. It would probably be easier to get staffers to do it.
What else do you do?
[My girlfriend] Darya [Watnick] and I also enjoy making ice cream, specifically international flavors of ice cream that are not necessarily traditional. Definitely the most out-there flavor that we made has been kanafeh ice cream. Kanafeh is an Arabic dessert, it’s like a melted cheese dessert with rosewater and orange blossom water and phyllo hairs with pistachios on it. It was a very delicious thing.
Andrea F. Siegel is a Washington-area writer.
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