Orchestra Promotes Jewish-Arab Dialogue

Polyphony of Nazareth                  Photo by Kai Bienert

A new partnership between an orchestra in Israel and a nonprofit in Philadelphia began with Rabbi David Straus playing matchmaker.

The Main Line Reform Temple rabbi heard about Polyphony of Nazareth, a classical music orchestra made up of Jewish and Arab musicians, through a friend and fellow rabbi who said the group was looking to expand virtual programming options and raise money to support the performers during the pandemic. 

The orchestra’s mission of fostering connections among Jews and Arabs in the Middle East reminded Straus of ARTolerance, a local nonprofit in Philadelphia that shared a similar mission of using the arts to promote cross-cultural understanding. Main Line Reform had a longstanding relationship with the organization’s founder and artistic director, Udi Bar-David, and putting him in touch with Polyphony’s executive director, Nabeel Abboud Ashkar, seemed like a perfect fit. 

Bar-David, an Israeli, and Ashkar, an Arab Palestinian Israeli citizen, quickly hit it off after Straus made the initial introduction, and the three leaders began brainstorming ways to bring their communities together. 

The result is a virtual concert that will be held May 23 at noon on Zoom. Polyphony will play Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” from Nazareth to an audience of community members in the Greater Philadelphia area. Local ARTolerance artists also will perform. In addition to Main Line Reform, local sponsors include Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel, Congregation Shir Ami, the Jewish Community Relations Council and several churches. 

Ashkar said he has seen how passion for classical music can unite students from different cultural backgrounds during his time leading Polyphony and Barenboim-Said Conservatory in Nazareth. Many of the conservatory’s students have won national and international recognition in the classical music world, and the organization’s programming has been integrated into music curriculum in Israeli schools. 

“If you’re an Arab or Jewish kid, you’re in an early stage exposed to two different cultures,” he said. 

Bar-David, who is a cellist with the Philadelphia Orchestra, said one of ARTolerance’s primary focuses is bringing Arabs and Jews together to foster understanding among communities and promote equality among Jews and Arabs in the Middle East.

“I believe that there is a growing number of voices in the Jewish community, myself included, who really want to see a change,” he said. 

Changing the cultural conversations about Jews and Arabs in Israel is an urgent calling for Bar-David and Ashkar. Bar-David believes the country’s status quo is unsustainable without full civil rights for Palestinians, and Ashkar believes the only way to achieve peace is to make Israeli society more inclusive and pluralistic. 

Ashkar, Bar-David and Straus also believe the program will help American Jews understand and appreciate the complexities of Jewish-Arab relationships in Israel, since reading or watching news about conflict in the Middle East is no substitute for engaging in conversations with Jewish and Arab communities and getting their perspectives first hand. 

“This is one opportunity for a really fantastic musical group that includes so many Arabs to be introduced to the Jewish community. I don’t think that there are enough interactions between the two in this country,” Bar-David said.

The program will not end after the May 23 event. The leaders of Polyphony, Main Line Reform and ARTolerance intend for the concert to be the first in a series of events and conversations to promote greater cross-cultural understanding among Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Americans. 

After the initial event, the groups will hold community discussions and classes. When travel becomes safer, ARTolerance and Main Line Reform hope to bring local audiences to visit the orchestra in Nazareth. Polyphony is also scheduled to perform at Carnegie Hall during the 2022 season. In the meantime, the organizations are enjoying the wide reach and accessibility that virtual platforms offer.

“We often focus on the conflict, and the conflict is real, and there are many narratives about what has happened,” Straus said. “But what a program like this is about is saying, ‘There’s also hope,’ and that there are ways that there can truly be examples of a shared society.”

Those interested in attending the virtual concert can access the Zoom link at bit.ly/3eyzoT2.

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