Jerusalem Youth Chorus: Changing Israeli-Palestinian dialogue

The Jerusalem Youth Chorus makes its presence known across social media platforms – Instagram, YouTube and Facebook. They’ve gotten more than a million views.

 THE JERUSALEM Youth Chorus 10th Anniversary Concert, 2022. (photo credit: Guy Sidi)
THE JERUSALEM Youth Chorus 10th Anniversary Concert, 2022.
(photo credit: Guy Sidi)

Every year, Micah Hendler and Amer Abu Arqub, leaders of the Jerusalem Youth Chorus (JYC), go to schools throughout the city, make social media videos and put up flyers at festivals to offer teenagers in both west and east Jerusalem a profound way of understanding different perspectives.

Hendler went to the capital in 2012 from the United States for the explicit purpose of founding this chorus. Abu Arqub, a Jerusalemite, is an alumnus of the chorus. Coming from different worlds, they overlapped in more than just the three languages they speak – English, Arabic and Hebrew. They believe that Jerusalem teenagers from across the Palestinian-Israeli divide who are motivated to sing together could experience meaningful transformations.

“What’s really interesting is that on both sides, there’s a lot of pressure from families, friends and schools from east and west Jerusalem to leave the chorus after they join. Sometimes we’re able to engage the people who put that pressure to meet with us or to come to a concert to see for themselves. To see what we do instead of what they fear we do. We can often surprise people because the singers can shine and fully be themselves,” Hendler said.

“What’s really interesting is that on both sides, there’s a lot of pressure from families, friends and schools from east and west Jerusalem to leave the chorus after they join. Sometimes we’re able to engage the people who put that pressure to meet with us or to come to a concert to see for themselves. To see what we do instead of what they fear we do. We can often surprise people because the singers can shine and fully be themselves.”

Micah Hendler

Hendler had just graduated from Yale with a degree in music and international studies and had written his senior thesis on long-term Israeli-Palestinian youth musical dialogue processes and the extent to which they could be viable in Jerusalem. He received seed funding from the Cohen Public Service Fellowship, available to Yale seniors who want to do some service or social change work upon graduating.

Hendler first met Palestinians as a teenager at Seeds of Peace, a summer camp for teens from conflict regions.

 WITH STEPHEN COLBERT after performing on the ‘Late Show,’ 2015. (credit: The Jerusalem Youth Chorus) WITH STEPHEN COLBERT after performing on the ‘Late Show,’ 2015. (credit: The Jerusalem Youth Chorus)

“I went to Seeds with a mind as open as possible, not necessarily knowing what to expect,” he told the Magazine in an interview in Jerusalem. There, he was introduced to the concept of a dialogue space: sitting in a room and talking openly about life with people he hadn’t been specially raised to trust or empathize with. “Being in that dialogue space blew my mind,” he recalled. He added that when he envisioned the Jerusalem Youth Chorus, the merging of song and dialogue had been inspired by the power of his Seeds of Peace experience.

Breaking the language barrier

Hendler studied Arabic in college, visited Damascus before the war in Syria, and then put his Arabic to the test in Israel. “It makes a huge difference in winning people’s trust. There’s so much that could be shared if people could talk about it and understand one another,” he said.

“We recognize each other’s languages in the chorus. Everything is translated, which is unique in that no one language is required, and there isn’t necessarily a common spoken language. People get creative communicating. But we also use music as a shared communication tool to build relationships, even when members can’t have an easy, normal conversation.

Hendler described the four-hour weekly JYC rehearsal session this way: “There’s one hour of singing, then a short break, then an hour and a half of dialogue, then another break, then another hour of singing. So it’s like a music sandwich.”

The dialogue is conducted in person with groups of 10 to 20 singers sitting in a circle. Each dialogue group has two professional facilitators – one Jewish, one Arab – and an interpreter, to ensure that everyone can speak in their language and be understood by the whole circle. Generally, a dialogue starts by creating a foundation of trust, focusing on building a shared value language around charged topics like equality or freedom, and then going deeper. Hendler explained that a shared foundation enables dialogue – not people simply hurling headlines at each other but truly listening to personal experiences and beliefs, ultimately helping participants see the world through one another’s eyes.

“It’s one of the ideas I learned in my thesis research, that people come for the singing because it’s more fun than the dialogue; but the singers come to realize how important the dialogue is and even ask for more time for it, especially in times of heightened conflict in Jerusalem. It’s a space where they can process what’s going on around them honestly and safely.

“A lot of people on both sides join because they want to sing, make music videos, be on the radio, collaborate with international stars, like David Broza, a multi-platinum household name in Israel. We try to meet everyone where they are. Not all of our songs or videos are the same. For example, some songs are more feel-good, like our Home from Home video, our A Mashup for Change video, or our video with Andy,” he said.

In the international sphere, the Jerusalem Youth Chorus has been invited to perform overseas nine times. They recently made a music video with Ziggy Marley, the son of great reggae artist Bob Marley. They’ve performed on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and on BBC’s Newsnight in London.

The Jerusalem Youth Chorus makes its presence known across social media platforms – Instagram, YouTube and Facebook. They’ve gotten more than a million views. Two appearances on television reached another six million.

“I think one of the challenges in Jerusalem is that both Israelis and Palestinians have been burned so many times that people think that nothing can change. And because of that, they feel there’s no real alternative to the cycle of violence. So by helping to show a counter-factual, a different example, even on a small scale that people could feel through the music, it challenges the idea that a different way is impossible.

“In the beginning, we avoided local publicity because we didn’t want the singers to get so much pushback that they would leave. We wanted to keep them safe. After 10 years and the chorus being more solid, we’re moving into a more local and vocal strategy, where we’re rebuilding our curriculum to prepare singers to go out into their communities and raise their voices for what they believe,” Hendler said.

The Jerusalem Youth Chorus comprises about two-thirds girls and one-third boys, with more Palestinian boys and more Israeli girls. Some parents, Hendler conceded, are concerned about dating. “Everyone makes their own choice. We have people with wildly different cultural norms around gender, so we have understandings in the chorus that we ask permission before we hug someone. We have a lot of conversations about what a safe space means. But whether singers end up in different kinds of relationships outside the chorus program, it’s not our goal nor are we trying to prevent teenagers from living their lives.”

Amer Abu Arqub, CEO of the JYC

Amer Abu Arqub moved to Jerusalem when he was in sixth grade, a move that turned his world upside down.

“Growing up in Bir Neballa [northeast of Jerusalem], I remember living with my cousins and playing soccer. We used to walk to school, and one day we saw a big wall being built around my village. That 10-minute walk turned into an hour’s car ride. We’d go through Bir Neballa, Kafr Aqab, and Kalandia checkpoints until we could pass into Jerusalem.”

Abu Arqub wasn’t going to do that. He and his cousins found a hole in the wall, where they would climb over a big rock to get to school. “I remember how unsafe I felt doing that. But we lived there, the wall was built, and I had to go to school. Until one day, as my father was leaving the village mosque, the Israeli army vehicles were stopping people who were praying. They asked for my dad’s ID, and when they saw he had the resident blue ID, he was told he needed to move to Jerusalem or he’d lose his residency. So we moved to Beit Hanina. I remember how, as a Palestinian kid who moved to the holy city, I grew up feeling unsafe, unseen, unheard. I felt that I had to hide my identity to live because of the injustices, inequalities and violence happening toward the Palestinians.”

At the end of 2014, Abu Arqub met Hendler in the hallway of the YMCA. “I thought, ‘Who’s this American who speaks very good Arabic? I’d love to meet him.’ I was just starting to do beatboxing, and I saw that he could beatbox. So we would beatbox for two minutes in the halls of the YMCA, and he would teach me some tricks.”

A role model in Captain Rogers

Abu Arqub used to sit in a small room in the YMCA to attend a video-editing course and would hear the choir singing in the next room.

“I remember feeling it was awesome and feeling very jealous. I was very upset that I didn’t have any musical talents or singing background. So I went to Micah and asked to audition for the chorus. The day before the audition, I watched the first Captain America movie, where Captain Rogers, before he became a hero, kept applying to the army and they kept refusing him. They would say he was short, tiny, not good for the army. Until one commander accepted him, saying: ‘I know you’re tiny, not good for the army, but you’re a good man.’

“When I went to the audition for the chorus, before Micah heard my horrible voice, I told  him I know that I have no musical background or talents, but I’m a good man – basically the idea that I’m very committed to learn.

“So my journey with the chorus started then, in 2014. I remember our first concert at the YMCA. It was a Christmas concert, and I remember holding the microphone beatbox, this Palestinian who felt unheard and unseen, in front of an audience of 600 people. The chorus gave me the platform to meet people I wouldn’t usually be able to meet on an eye-to-eye level and be heard. But also to keep my integrity as a Palestinian, as Amer, with my own identity.

“Last December, I decided to leave my law office, where I was a lawyer, to empower kids from east and west Jerusalem. During my years in the chorus, I understood that it wasn’t only me who felt this way; my Israeli friends also felt unsafe. That’s why I decided to become the CEO to have these life-changing experiences in the chorus.

“When I joined, I came with my vision and saw how much the violence was escalating in Jerusalem. Based on the strategic-thinking discussions with the JYC family last summer, we understood that the chorus needs to be more local. Local means being more embedded in Jerusalem in a way that people can see how we can create the space for a home where they can be their own selves and still coexist, despite our many disagreements. We want to show people in Jerusalem that by doing more partnerships with organizations like schools, community centers and other peace-building bodies, we can use our model of music and dialogue to empower people in Jerusalem and those who work on changing policies and more.

“One of the things we pride ourselves on is not requiring musical training to get in. We want to take people who love to sing and have the ability to sing in a group but have not necessarily had music lessons or the opportunity to take music lessons. We offer a lot of scholarships for singers who may have not yet had the chance to be in a musical group but who have talent and a desire to bring their best to the chorus,” he said.

Abu Arqub is currently working on building a new four-year curriculum. “I want to make sure JYC graduates have enough tools, knowledge and responsibility to make an impact in their communities and be able to withstand the pushback from their communities. Because what we’re doing is lo muvan me’elav [not what is expected]. It’s controversial. It’s very important to emphasize that what we try to create in the chorus is to be who we are, to be able to understand the different points of view in the chorus, not certainly agree with them, but sit down and listen. The idea is to make these young singers grow up on the chorus’s values.” ■

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The Jerusalem Youth Chorus is open for auditions. To register:

The writer is an artist and writer in Haifa and author of a memoir about coming full circle to a Jewish way of life in Japan: Available at and Jerusalem’s Pomeranz bookstore. 

A neuroscientist finds the chorus is breaking through social barriers

Dr. David M. Greenberg has long been an enthusiastic supporter of the Jerusalem Youth Chorus. A social psychologist and neuroscientist at Bar-Ilan and Cambridge universities, Greenberg studies the impact of music on the brain and society.

Greenberg first learned of the Jerusalem Youth Chorus in 2015 at a conference in London called Neuroscience for Empathy. “

“Jerusalem Youth Chorus founder Micah Hendler was presenting and showed a video of the chorus during rehearsals. I chased after him and said we have to do an actual scientific study on the chorus,” Greenberg recalled.

In the spring of 2019, Greenberg received a grant from the Academy of Medical Sciences in the UK to start. As part of his trip to Israel, he sat in on one of the rehearsals with colleague Prof. Moshe Bensimon. “By the end of the rehearsal, after hearing the music and observing the interaction through non-verbal communication and gestures, Moshe tapped me on the shoulder during one of the songs and showed me on his phone a report of rockets being fired in and out of Gaza between Israel. This was the first time that fighting had escalated in five years. Without Moshe having anything to say to me, we both understood the enormity of that moment because, at the same time that there was immense political and violent conflict, we were sitting in a space where Israelis and Palestinians were using other means to build peace. The Jerusalem Youth Chorus members were using side-by-side singing and face-to-face dialogue.

“There’s an idea in social psychology about whether you would be comfortable with someone considered ‘other’ to be a family member, so that’s an aspect in any social situation where you’re dealing with people of different cultures. It takes a lot of courage because each is returning to their own communities, to people with different beliefs than theirs. There are definitely social risks involved.

“It’s interesting when returning to music, what’s the role of the chorus that’s so special here? Why not have just a dialogue? The music allows the singers to see each other in different ways that might be more real and authentic because music can often remove boundaries and remove defenses. It’s closely related to the heart, expressing things that words cannot,” he explained.

“In broad terms, we are seeing changes in social perception and bonding, and we’re seeing that music and dialogue have different roles to play in these factors,” Greenberg added.

Dr. Greenberg puts the spotlight on The Jerusalem Youth Chorus in his TedX talk: and  

 JAPANESE MUSICIAN Yayoi Okaniwa at home in Mea She’arim. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) JAPANESE MUSICIAN Yayoi Okaniwa at home in Mea She’arim. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

A Ladino diva of Japanese descent in Mea She’arim

Compact as a genie bottle and just as plushly decorated, Yayoi Okaniwa’s home in a grand British Mandate building in Mea She’arim is where the musician practices, does her copious research, and holds court for Jewish and Palestinian friends alike.

Okaniwa has lived in Israel for 10 years and counting, never expecting that a scholarship would lead to a life transformation. Quite by chance in Tokyo in 2010, she first heard Ladino songs. Seeds of curiosity about Israel had already been planted in her childhood. The Japanese classically trained musician had been raised in a Buddhist family in Tokyo and, from an early age, she loved to thumb through a book of photography from the Holy Land that was in her home.  

“Sephardi music was so different from the Baroque opera, Renaissance and medieval era music I had been trained in. I was introduced to Hijaz, one of the most common Middle Eastern maqams, the musical scale in Turkish and Arab regions, with just melody and not harmony.

“It’s fascinating that the Hijaz scale is especially used in Sephardi liturgical music to produce a Jewish taste. Even the Ashkenazi Jews were using it from the influence of the Ottoman Empire,” she said.

At first, Okaniwa studied by herself because there was no opportunity to learn about Sephardi culture in Tokyo. “Most Jewish people I met through Chabad or the Jewish community of Tokyo were Ashkenazi, so I could just buy disks from Amazon and read about Jewish culture in Japanese. This was my first step. It was very limited,” Okaniwa said.

Okaniwa did something almost unthinkable for a middle-aged Tokyoite. She paused her life as a professional singer, solo concert performer and recording artist of Baroque opera, medieval and Renaissance music and applied for an Israeli government cultural scholarship. What started off as a one-year plan in Israel has become 10. Okaniwa now finds herself years later as one of the few Japanese in Jerusalem to straddle both Jewish and Palestinian worlds with empathy and tolerance, with plenty to appreciate on both sides of the divide. Her repertoire ranges from Sephardi music to the broader Arab world, including Turkish-Ottoman music.

As a member of the Israeli Ladino Orchestra, under the leadership of Ariel Lazarus, Okaniwa plays classic Sephardi songs and Gibraltar-born Lazarus’s original melodies. “Besides Sephardi songs, we also play piyyut, holy poems from the Sephardi side, from medieval Spain’s golden age and the great poets Yehuda Halevi and Solomon ibn Gabirol.”

Okaniwa also plays with the Ma’aleh Adumim Andalus Orchestra, which has a rich repertoire of music from Al-Andalus, the North African region that includes Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria.

Extensive research led Okaniwa to discover a fascinating Sephardi connection to Japan’s feudal history. A 16th-century Portuguese surgeon, merchant and Christian missionary of the Society of Jesus, Dr. Luis de Almeda, was a Converso from a Sephardi family. 

Almeda wrote about his life in Japan as a doctor and missionary and will be the subject of a musical tribute that Okaniwa is creating now and will perform later this year.

Recently, Okaniwa talked about her musical career in Israel with foreign correspondent Koji Miki from one of Japan’s leading newspapers, The Mainichi Shimbun. “When I started to sing Ladino, which is very close to Arabic or Turkish music, I knew that some Japanese musicians played Arabic music. I was prepared to be criticized by them because they stood on the Palestinian side, but my worries were unnecessary.”

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