Come thee to a concert.
In my Jerusalem, like so many places in the world, this is the time of year for fostering fellowship. Yes, even here in the Middle East. There’s a Hanukka tradition of making peace within the family.
It might reflect the repentance and forgiveness from the Joseph saga that we read in synagogues this time of year, the healing in the Temple under the Hasmoneans, or the impact of the Hanukka lights burning inside our homes. Maybe all three. But I want to reach out to you, my fellow Jews who make me so upset when I see your Jewish names among those who accuse us, your Israeli family, of every iniquity.
I know you feel a moral obligation to tell us how to make peace and how to treat our neighbors, and that you believe you would be living by a higher standard of tolerance if you were the ones facing rockets, bus bombings, rogue vehicles and acid attacks.
I understand that you feel it’s an expression of Jewish yearning for justice when you champion the civil rights of fellow students who gag at the site of an Israeli flag or even a SodaStream label. Our imperfections, not our achievements, shape your identity. I’d like you to reconsider.
Words won’t do it. Let’s try music.
Come with me to a concert called “Bridges of Light” just down the street. Here in Israel, in the city of not-always-progressive religious ideas, the principal performer is Rasha Hamad. She’s blind and autistic.
She’s Muslim. She was born in Jenin, but she lives in Beit Jala, a suburb of Bethlehem, in a place called Jemima House, which is run by Dutch Christians.
Rasha’s teacher, Devorah Schramm, has been compared to Anne Sullivan, who changed the life of Helen Keller. Schramm is an Orthodox Jew. She wears a wig out of modesty. She was born in Boston, not particularly religious, but the anti-Semitism she experienced as a music student at Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, impelled her to seek her religious roots. It’s her belief in God that has motivated her to become Rasha’s devoted teacher. Schramm and her husband Lenn have brought up four daughters, now all married in Gilo – what we Jerusalemites call a neighborhood and BDS activists call a settlement.
Gilo and Bethlehem are only a few miles from each other. Rasha has a pass to come into Jerusalem – the soldiers at the border even play her CD. Schramm can’t go the other way, because Israelis are prohibited from traveling there. A few times, Schramm has had to meet her pupil in the House of Hope school on the border, because Rasha gets very agitated if she has to miss a lesson.
During the second intifada, both Gilo and Bethlehem were under gunfire.
Schramm and the Jemima staff were continuously on the phone with the people in Jemima House, checking in on each other – or as Schramm calls it, “holding each other’s hands.”
Schramm’s commitment isn’t a “come for two weeks and help the poor people” visit. She’s been teaching Rasha for 26 years. I love listening to her talk about Rasha’s music, how Chopin resonates for her, how now, after all these years, there’s new progress in the depth of the interpretation.
She worries about her student’s moods in the cold, dark winter, when she seems sad, and waits for the burgeoning that usually accompanies the spring.
In all this time, she’s never met Rasha’s mother.
I have visited Jemima House. I wrote about Rasha, among other children there, in 1991 for Woman’s Day magazine in America when she was 16. This sanctuary of kindness was the dream come true of Helen and Edward Vollbehr, two pious Christians from Holland. They couldn’t have biological children because of a car accident in Helen’s childhood while her father was serving as a missionary in a rural outpost. They had come to the Holy Land to serve God and take in 22 developmentally challenged Arab children to care for and bring up. Back in those days, a Jewish Israeli like me could still take the city bus to Bethlehem.
Social workers had referred Rasha, age four, and her five-year-old sister Nadia to the Vollbehrs. Both girls were blind and mentally challenged. Nadia was also deaf. Their ashamed teenage parents had locked them away.
“We were shocked when we saw them,” Edward told me back then. “They crawled on their behinds and used their feet like hands. Their hands were knotted up in fists and they kept poking at their eyes.”
The Vollbehrs taught the two girls to eat and walk. They dressed the girls in long shirts and sewed up the sleeves so they’d stop abusing their eyes. It took a year to toilet-train them.
“Don’t think it wasn’t depressing – it was,” said Edward. “I couldn’t see how we’d ever succeed.”
One evening, Helen quieted the children by playing a cassette of choral music.
When the tape finished playing, Helen sang a bar of music. Rasha sang back the harmony. Not only was she talented, but music offered a way to get through to her.
Helen took care of all these challenged and challenging children while fighting her own battle with breast cancer. She has since died. Edward has moved back to Holland, but Rasha has remained at Jemima House, under the care of other good people.
Helen believed Rasha needed better instruction than she could provide and turned to the Jerusalem Conservatory for Music and Arts, also called “Hasadna,” to find a proper teacher for the girl. The school director called Schramm.
Like many residential homes for the challenged, Jemima House has been on the brink of sending children home, and certainly conserving funds by cutting back on Rasha’s lessons. Usually an angel appears.
In 2005, the Film Division of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles produced a documentary called Beautiful Music. It won a prize at the Hollywood Film Festival and secured an extension of Rasha’s musical education.
“A gift from God,” says Schramm.
THE CONSERVATORY works out of the Adam School on Jerusalem’s Emek Refaim Street. That’s where the Winter Concert takes place on a Saturday night. The audience is filled with parents and relatives and interested Bethlehem residents and Jerusalemites like me who like music and who like the idea of this concert. About half of the audience is wearing religious head coverings.
The evening begins with a medley of Hanukka songs, performed in a duet by two teenage Jewish girls, one from a Russian background, the other from an Ethiopian one. They have lovely, lilting voices.
Then it’s Rasha’s time on stage. Dressed in a black skirt and shirt, she’s no longer a child banging on the table or a teenager with whims. She’s a concert pianist who knows how to command an audience she’ll never see. She opens with her beloved Chopin – not her signature Mazurka, but another, Op. 17 No. 4.
She’s not the only challenged student performing. There are several talented Jewish musicians with disabilities, too. There’s also a band that won a prize at Carnegie Hall.
“I don’t believe in segregating challenged children,” says Schramm. “They need to play and perform with everyone.”
Two Dutch music therapy interns from Jemima House sing a medley of Christmas songs in English and Dutch, with Rasha accompanying them on the piano. I’m a little nervous that someone in the audience might spoil the harmony, but as it turns out, I needn’t worry.
Hasadna’s children’s choir sings a song called “Tutira Mai” – in Maori, of all things.
And the grand finale, which brings everyone singing and performing together: a song by Naomi Shemer, made famous by the late Shoshana Damari.
Instrumentalists and singers. Rasha and Lea and Inge and Yiftah and the audience.
Those who don’t know the Hebrew hum along.
The sighted and the sightless.
It lifts me to my feet.
A rhapsody of optimism, called simply “Light.” The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel.
She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.