How music changed my life

Lena is justifiably proud of her students who go on to illustrious careers, but she also thrills to the music produced by the children with special needs.

Students take a breather from practice, relaxing on the stairs (photo credit: Courtesy)
Students take a breather from practice, relaxing on the stairs
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Lena Nemirovsky-Wiskind’s mother wouldn’t give her piano lessons.
It took all the wiles and perseverance of a five-year-old child to change her mother’s mind.  Mrs. Nemirovsky had meant well, but she herself as a child had hated music lessons and the hounding to practice that went with them, and wanted to spare her own little girl that agonizing experience.  By the time Lena was seven, however, she had won her mother over.  An extraordinary piano teacher was found, who set Lena on the path that benefits hundreds of children today.      
Lena was born in Moscow, and when very small made aliyah with her parents and paternal grandparents.  This was 1972, when Russia’s gate was beginning to open.  Her maternal grandparents arrived three years later. Lena grew up and studied in Jerusalem. For the past ten years she has lived in Neve Ilan with her husband and two children.  She has never returned to Russia. 
The teacher her mother found that fortuitous day was Luiza Yoffe who had made aliyah from Vilna in 1971. 
A dynamic woman, Luiza drew out the excellence in her students, as attested to by the many accomplished musicians who credit her with their own success.  Wisely and gently she guided them, encouraging them as they developed the necessary discipline and fortitude. Luiza nurtured Lena closely until she entered the IDF. 
There, she was assigned to the Outstanding Musicians Unit, which enables members to continue with studies and practice.  Their duties include performances for the troops.  Fortunately for Lena she was stationed close to home.  Following the military, Lena earned a Musicology Degree from Tel Aviv University. Meantime, Luiza Yoffe became Head of the Piano Department at Hassadna Jerusalem Music Conservatory.  (Currently the Piano Department is named after her.) 
In 1973, pianist and musician Amalya Reuel had founded Hassadna Jerusalem Music Conservatory (“hassadna” means workshop in Hebrew).  Her dream was to develop a music school that was open to any child, where the learning environment would be completely comfortable.  She wanted to provide an atmosphere where musically inclined children could study and work, could thrive, could trust, would find comfort, and would be encouraged.  She insisted that this opportunity be open to every child, even the ones who don’t know they want it.  This meant that no impediment, neither religious, ethnic, racial, financial, physical, nor mental, would prevent any child from actualizing the music within.
Luiza was still the mentoring/nurturing presence in Lena’s life.  By now 24 years old, Lena’s  role changed from student to Assistant.  With Luiza’s encouragement, she began to give lessons to the younger children.  Luiza guided her in teaching skills, showing her how to bring out the different ‘best’ in each different child.  This, combined with Lena’s experience developing her own talent, gave her, as she puts it herself “a deep understanding of ‘studenthood.’” Under Luiza’s tutelage, she built a class of 14 students, and officially became part of Hassadna.
Lena had expected teaching and performing to be her career, and for close to eight years it was, until, 17 years ago, Founder/Director Amalya, as well as her assistant Aliza Levin, decided to retire.  Lena was offered the Director position.  Feeling very honoured, she accepted.  The list of duties on her job description skyrocketed; she was after all, replacing an outstanding personality, the creator and motive power behind the entire institution. 
Ultimately she grew into the position.  Yet Lena admits she would still be overwhelmed if it weren’t for her supportive staff.  In her words: “Working in music and with children, the two most beautiful elements of life, make this a ‘dream job,’ but without the people I work with, it could not be so; I would be overcome.  I am very grateful for the amazing people around me, who share the vision bequeathed to us by the founders.  The enjoyment I experience in this position is due to our Chairman Amir Kadari and our Musical Directors Ronit Berman, Oleg Bogod, and Sagit Mazuz.” 
The central aspect of the founders’ vision is being realized. Hassadna welcomes any child who has the “spark,” from the affluent to the underprivileged, of every community, attitude, religion, citizenship, nationality, mental and physical capability. A tangible feature of the school is the absence of friction between the various cultures.  
The experience of working together, striving for excellence in a beloved medium, seems to smooth out counter-productive differences. Hassadna works hard to encourage this outcome.  For example, in some cultures the concept of music lessons is not understood, and may even be mistrusted.  This barrier is approached with patience and dedication by teachers and coordinating staff who impart an understanding of the value of music. 
Much sensitivity is needed. There are parents who simply don’t understand, and some just don’t care.  Why practice so much?  Why take instruments to lessons?  Sometimes a student needs to practice at the Conservatory in order to feel comfortable.
Enrollment at Hassadna is over 600, ages 3 to 18.  Individual lessons are the core of the program, but duets, trios, quartets, chamber ensembles, and orchestras, are frequently showcased in venues around the city (which are open to the public, not just parents and friends). Recitals featuring students from all the departments are a regular event.  Practicing together puts students in close contact, blending with and enhancing each other’s efforts, creating a musical structure.  As sensitivity to one another grows, differences fade.  Hassadna is credited with going further toward breaking down barriers between communities than any other program anywhere. 
Hassadna students win awards and competitions all over the world, and are invited to perform in state of the art concert halls.  The big excitement now is the Hassadna Youth Wind Orchestra’s trip to New York in April, to play at Carnegie Hall.  Six years ago Hassadna performed at Carnegie Hall, but for these participants this is the first time. 
The 50-member group of high school students is one of six, chosen from around the world.  (The other successful competitors are from the Czech Republic, Poland, and the United States.)  Back in December, funding for the trip was still needed.  Lena was juggling with costs, saving money by not booking a direct flight, finding instead an economical connection in a European city that would be user friendly for this many teens. Professional fundraisers were scrambling to think of who had the heart and the pocketbook to support this project.  The students themselves helped out every way they could, including crowdfunding.  (Half the students going are from families that can afford their portion of the cost.  The other half, can’t.)  At this writing, the funds for the trip have been raised.
A significant addition to Lena’s load upon becoming director is finding money for these goals and programs.  Hassadna is currently located on Emek Refaim, sharing space with a primary school. Both institutions are experiencing growing enrollment. Plans are in the works for a new building for Hassadna; a location has already been set aside.  This project is largely being facilitated by the Jerusalem Foundation. 
Actually, donors from United States, England, Canada, Israel, and elsewhere, support a variety of Hassadna’s financial needs though the Jerusalem Foundation. After tuition fees, Hassadna is sustained mainly by private donors.  Creative funding ideas are implemented on an ongoing basis.  An example: One enterprising philanthropist’s grant provides state of the art locations for special concerts. (The “default” venue is the basketball court!)  There is a project for every donor style.  Master classes are provided for advanced students, requiring professionals be brought from wherever they are, to Hassadna.  Full scholarships are always needed. 
Occasionally a music student will need help with regular schooling.  Talented individuals who go on to places like Julliard often need ongoing support.  Once a career is begun there are still major expenses; musicians do not become self-sufficient overnight.  Some donors support a student closely, a ‘patron’ so to speak, from childhood into career.  Other patrons prefer anonymity. Instruments are needed... and salaries.
Lena is justifiably proud of her students who go on to illustrious careers, but she also thrills to the music produced by the children with special needs….one wheelchair bound little girl with cerebral palsy, blind, mostly paralyzed, who doesn’t breathe on her own, makes “such joyful music with just two fingers” that she’s a pleasure to listen to.  These children are integrated and can be found practicing duets with senior students.  The process of helping, sharing, adapting, respecting each other, and loving the music they are producing together, expands the character of both.   There would be nothing for these children without Hassadna.  That they all deserve the best of teachers is a fact not neglected when funds are allocated. 
Lena will admit that some very fortuitous circumstances brought her to where she is. Blessings in the form of opportunities came “from the miracle world” is how she puts it.  Even the smattering of Russian she received from her grandparents is improving as she speaks with Hassadna teachers.  She modestly dismisses her own hard work and talent, yet, perhaps her grandmother’s frustrated hopes and dreams for her own daughter played a part, materializing in the granddaughter.  Lena is enthusiastic about where the Hassadna vision is taking her.  There are still “sparks” out there, waiting to be ignited… a big job for a big heart.