Between 5-6-70 Israel!, the Israeli flag raising over Philadelphia City Hall and the countless other events Philadelphia’s Jewish community held to celebrate Israel’s 70th anniversary, it may seem like there couldn’t possibly be another way to recognize the Jewish state’s birthday.
But Philadelphia has one more celebration up its sleeve, as The Philadelphia Orchestra headed to Israel with a delegation of about 70 Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and Orchestra patrons as part of its international tour this year.
After spending May 24 to June 1 touring and playing concerts in Belgium, Luxembourg,
France, Germany and Austria, the Orchestra will travel to Israel on June 2. The patrons, who will arrive June 1, will join the 125 members of the Orchestra as they continue to Haifa, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for additional concerts until the tour ends on June 7.
“This is a historic journey and unique partnership of two Philadelphia institutions at this really important time for us to be supporting Israel,” said Melissa Greenberg, chief development officer at the Jewish Federation, who will be participating in the trip. “I’m looking forward to every minute of it.”
The Orchestra goes on an international tour every year. Most often, said Ryan Fleur, the Orchestra’s interim co-president, it goes to Asia, especially China. Two years ago, it started planning a tour in Europe for 2018.
About six months into the planning, the Orchestra began considering extending that tour to Israel in honor of the country’s 70th birthday, as well as Leonard Bernstein’s centennial. Fleur said that another reason the Orchestra decided to go to Israel is because some of its patrons had expressed that the Jewish state was a priority for them.
The Orchestra approached Greenberg, who used to work in Philadelphia’s civic and cultural community and knew many of the people involved, about creating a partnership with the Jewish Federation to plan a tour.
“Our mission is not just about playing music,” Fleur said. “It’s also about the work we do off-stage, how we connect … with people who don’t have the same access as others. And then also, what we refer to as diplomacy, the way that we use music to help communicate among people of different backgrounds.”
When The Philadelphia Orchestra travels internationally, it sometimes bring patrons along, but they number around 15 rather than the 70 who are coming on this trip. The partnership with the Jewish Federation, combined with the fact that American orchestras don’t often travel to Israel and the unique itinerary of the patron tour, resulted in a lot of interest in the trip.
“There’s a lot of crossover [among the patrons], and that’s really one of the points of all this,” Greenberg said. “There are a number of people who are very involved with both the Jewish Federation and the Orchestra. Then, there are some people who are more involved with us than the Orchestra but they are very interested and supportive of this incredible journey. Then there are some Orchestra people we have not met yet and we’re looking forward to getting to know them.”
The Orchestra members and patrons have separate itineraries for the Israel trip, though the two groups have opportunities to come together for the Orchestra’s concerts. In addition to the three main concerts, some Orchestra members will participate in other performances, such as a side-by-side concert with Tel Aviv University’s Buchmann-Mehta School of Music Symphony Orchestra, and master class instruction.
The majority of the Orchestra musicians will leave after the final performance in Jerusalem, but several dozen will remain in the country to participate in other activities, Greenberg said.
“I hope [the members of the Orchestra] will have a new appreciation of Israel and now will be able to both feel, taste and smell the country and will then be able to go on really understanding what Israel is,” Greenberg said.
The patrons’ tour includes many unique activities and options to accommodate different interest levels and familiarities with Israel. These include a Jaffa Old City tour led by Israeli and Arab guides, a visit to Tulip Winery located in a settlement of people with disabilities and a tour of Yad Vashem focusing on musicians and artists in the Holocaust.
Greenberg said one activity she is particularly looking forward to is a VIP tasting tour of the Machane Yehuda Market with Israeli chef Michael Solomonov.
But the tour has not been without controversy. Pro-Palestinian demonstrators protested the Orchestra’s trip to Israel for weeks outside of the Kimmel Center on Broad Street. The Philadelphia Inquirer also reported that two demonstrators entered the music hall on May 19, interrupting the performance. And demonstrators interrupted the Orchestra’s concert first performance of its tour in Europe in Brussels.
“Our artistic mission is truly not political,” said Udi Bar-David, a cellist with the Orchestra and an Israeli. “It’s unfortunate that some of the demonstrators are trying to drag The Philadelphia Orchestra into an involvement with something that’s really not part of the makeup and artistic makeup of what we do.”
Bar-David said that in addition to the three major concerts the Orchestra is performing in Israel, he is doing a number of smaller concerts, including one in Wahat al-Salam/Neve Shalom, an intentional community of Jewish and Israeli Arab citizens of Israel. He is looking forward to playing at the Jeanne and Bennet Tanenbaum Conservatory of Music in Netivot, a town near Gaza with which the Jewish Federation has a relationship.
While the Jewish Federation has partnered with The Philadelphia Orchestra previously to put on concerts in honor of Israel’s 50th and 60th birthdays, this is the first time the two organizations partnering together has resulted in a project this elaborate or extended, Greenberg said.
“This is a remarkable collaboration that has never been done before, certainly by Jewish
Federation and I believe The Philadelphia Orchestra,” Greenberg said. “They have been incredible partners, and we are thrilled to have this new, hopefully long-term partnership with The Philadelphia Orchestra based on this initial trip to Israel.”
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