Developing young, talented Israeli musicians with the Ronen Foundation

What began as a small, intimate family endeavor has grown into a foundation that has helped some 500 young musicians, many of whom have gone on to international fame.

 Tom Cohen (photo credit: DANIEL KAMINSKY)
Tom Cohen
(photo credit: DANIEL KAMINSKY)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

Tom Cohen boarded a bus in Beersheba heading to Tel Aviv, his mandolin safely tucked in his backpack. Lacking money to pay the tuition at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, he was on his way to impress a high-level banker into offering him a scholarship.

Yaffa Israeli, then head of international banking at Israel Discount Bank and founder and chairman of the Ronen Foundation, had been a patron of young violinists, pianists and aspiring opera singers. Would she grant a scholarship to the visiting mandolin player?

He walked into her office woefully disheveled – shorts, t-shirt, flip-flops – took out his mandolin, and without a word, began to strum and pick, his fingers dancing on the strings. “Shalom,” he said when done. “I’m Tom Cohen.”

Cohen, 39, is founder and conductor of the multi-cultural, world-renown Jerusalem East and West Orchestra, which blends, rewrites and reinvents the music of Europe and the Mediterranean. The orchestra has performed around the world.

Cohen will drop everything on October 25 to donate his time to the Ronen Foundation’s “Evening of the Stars” gala concert to raise funds for scholarships for the next generation of young musicians. The concert will take place at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art to honor the foundation’s 30-year anniversary.

Chen Reiss was just 16 when she met Yaffa Israeli at the Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts in Givatayim.

“When she spoke, I saw the light in her eyes,” recalls Israeli. “I told her: ‘Chen Reiss, you’re going to be a star.’”

 Chen Reiss (credit: PAUL MARC MITCHELL) Chen Reiss (credit: PAUL MARC MITCHELL)

With her crystal-clear soprano voice, Reiss has sung major roles at the world’s most prestigious venues including the Vienna State Opera, Teatro all Scala, and the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. Reiss was also invited to sing for Pope Francis during a Christmas Mass broadcast worldwide. She too will devote her time to performing at the concert.

“Yaffa Israeli is like a mother for me,” she says in a telephone interview from her home base in London, after returning from a five-country tour singing in the “Infernal Comedy-Confessions of a Serial Killer” with John Malkovich. “I will always find time to come and perform for Yaffa and the foundation. The relationship is deeper than just a professional connection. When I studied in New York, she came to visit. When I had my debut in La Scala and in Berlin, she came to hear me sing. She followed me around the world and introduced me to so many people in the business. I can say with all my heart that she is the most important support I’ve ever had. She was always there for me. The Ronen Foundation is not just about scholarships. You get accepted into a warm family. I give Yaffa a lot of credit for my success.”

Lahav Shani is another Ronen Foundation scholarship recipient. Today he is the conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, where the first violinist, Hed Yaron Meyerson, is himself also a Ronen alumnus. Lahav was recently named conductor of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

He, like the other deeply grateful alumni, will drop everything to join the other brilliant Ronen musicians at the special concert.

“We are all happy to do it,” says Cohen. “It’s a way of saying thank you to Yaffa, and a way of helping her to take her great pain and create something good out of it. The young generation that will play with us in the concert will understand that we were once kids just like them.”

Cohen is taking it a step further; he is paying it forward.

“Thanks to Yaffa, I decided this year, through the Ronen Foundation, to give my own scholarship to a kid from the periphery who wants to study music, to walk the same path as I did.”

“Thanks to Yaffa, I decided this year, through the Ronen Foundation, to give my own scholarship to a kid from the periphery who wants to study music, to walk the same path as I did.”

Tom Cohen

The story of the Ronen Foundation begins 30 years ago with a tragedy.

Suddenly and without any warning signs, Yaffa Israeli’s first-born son, Ronen, a brilliant student and a lover of classical music, took his own life. He was 24. The traditional Jewish mourning period of 30 days was not yet over when Yaffa Israeli showed up at the Thelma Yellin School of Arts in Givatayim looking for a violinist to whom she could award a scholarship in Ronen’s memory. Ronen had loved attending classical concerts and operas with her, and even studied Italian and German to understand the words.

What began as a small, intimate family endeavor has grown into a foundation that has helped some 500 young musicians, many of whom have gone on to international fame. The serious study of music is a long process that requires talent, endless hours of practice, and funding – lots of funding for private lessons, tuition, instruments, and study abroad. The list of internationally renowned performing artists, nurtured by the foundation, is long and impressive.

“I think the big difference between Ronen and other foundations I know of is that maybe Yaffa can’t grant large sums of money, but she gives her heart,” says Miri Zamir Capsuto, former director of the Thelma Yellin school’s classical music department. Zamir Capsuto has helped plan the annual concerts through the years and serves on the foundation’s board. “Yaffa becomes involved with their lives and careers. She is more than a donor of money. They become friends for life. The foundation is like a family, a close circle of friends.”

Tom Cohen agrees.

“Unlike all the other foundations, Yaffa was more than just money. She was someone to speak to, to help me. If I needed advice, if I had a dilemma, if I was invited abroad and didn’t have the airfare, I always had someone to speak with whose only interest before her eyes was my career, and my wellbeing.”

I meet Israeli in a Tel Aviv coffee shop. She is impeccably dressed, her long honey-colored hair styled in loose curls, her eyes warm and expressive. She speaks in a soft, modulated voice, exuding both strength and warmth. She often meets her young musicians in that same café.

“They know I am available to them 24/7, even if I am very busy,” she says. “First of all, they know the foundation is like a home, a family. They know they can always turn to me. When someone wants to meet me, I meet them. Many times, they tell me something before they even tell their own parents. When they go abroad, I use my international connections to help them meet people, with housing, opening doors for them. Our concerts are at a very high level with mega stars who perform with all their heart. People who come to our concerts feel the love in the air.”

The foundation grants about 30 scholarships a year in Israel and another 10 or so to Israeli musicians studying abroad. The recipients, past and present, stay in touch through a Ronen Foundation WhatsApp group where musical ensembles and chamber groups form, even marriages.

“I have grandchildren from the Ronen Foundation,” says Israeli, a smile breaking across her face.

To honor the 30th anniversary, the Ronen Foundation has sponsored free monthly concerts at the Schneider Children’s Medical Center, with a different quartet each time.

“My biggest sense of pride is when I see the musicians vying to get into the project. I was privileged to create something in Ronen’s memory that brings light to the eyes of other young people.”

In another anniversary project, piano soloist and composer Tal Chaim Samnon set a poem Ronen had written to music. The piece debuted this May in a special Ronen Foundation concert.

“I was able to take something so personal and fragile and bring it to life,” says Samnon, who received a Ronen Foundation scholarship while still in high school. “I grew up with the Ronen Foundation. It’s part of me. Yaffa is like my mother.”

Israel is a superpower in classical music, with Israeli virtuosos receiving world renown, including conductor Daniel Barenboim and violinists Pinchas Zukerman, Itzhak Perlman, and Shlomo Mintz. Such passion for classical music traces back several generations to the cities and shtetls of Eastern Europe, the yidl mit a fiddle from Odessa or Kiev. An old joke goes that during the Cold War era, when the Soviet Union and the US first began cultural exchanges, the Soviets sent their Jewish violinists from Odessa, and the US sent their Jewish violinists from Odessa.

Israeli pianists face competition from musicians trained in China, South Korea and other countries, where the emphasis is on technical perfection. It is estimated that there are 40 million children studying piano in China alone, more than four times the entire population of Israel.

“There is something in the Israeli personality, a special bit of chutzpah, originality and the Israeli individualism, that drives them to be outstanding,” says Zamir Capsuto. “Their individual statement makes them prominent. Technically, maybe they are not as perfect as the Koreans, but they are interesting to listen to.”

Israeli bemoans that it is difficult to raise money for music.

“Unfortunately, I have not been able to get large organizations or government entities to help fund us,” she says. “In our foundation, no one gets a salary. Not a penny is used for expenses. I have written to so many organizations to ask for help, but they don’t seem to understand that these young musicians are the best ambassadors for the state of Israel. Music is one language which everyone around the world understands.” ■

The concert honoring the 30th anniversary of the Ronen Foundation will be held on Tuesday, October 25, at the Racanati Hall in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. For tickets call (972) 52-246-1019.