Ep. 123 Transcript

Disclaimer: This is transcribed using AI. Expect (funny) errors.

Mindy Peterson: [00:00:00] I’m Mindy Peterson, and this is Enhance Life with Music, a holistic look at the power of music in our everyday lives. It’s become a little bit cliché to talk about the power of music. However, I read a story in the news several years ago that really grabbed my attention as a clear example of the power of music to change lives, to change cultures and to change our world. I read the story before I had ever heard of podcasts, much less started this podcast, but a listener reminded me of this story recently. Shout out to listener Cheryl Reeves. The story that I had read about was about the Jerusalem Youth Chorus, an Israeli-Palestinian Music and Dialogue Project. It’s been featured on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and The New York Times, and more than 100 other news sources. I’m so thrilled to have its founder and artistic director with me today. Micah Hendler is joining me from Washington, D.C. Micah was featured in the 2017 Forbes 30 Under 30 for music. In addition to founding Jerusalem Youth Chorus, which we may refer to as JYC, Micah is also a founding partner of Raise Your Voice Labs, a creative culture change company. He also writes for Forbes.com on music, society, and social change. Welcome to enhance life with music, Micah.

Micah Hendler: [00:01:34] Thank you so much, Mindy. I’m really excited to have a chance to chat.

Mindy Peterson: [00:01:38] Micah, the story about JYC, that I read in the news was in 2014 during the Gaza war, and I saw the story again, referencing some of the information on your website. It’s such a powerful moving story and really demonstrates the impact that JIC makes. Would you mind just sharing the story with listeners to set the stage for our conversation?

Micah Hendler: [00:02:03] Yeah, absolutely. I it was definitely one of the most powerful moments that really brought home the power of what we’re doing and that we’re that what we were actually doing was what we were intending to do, that we were actually succeeding in what we set out to do. Basically, this was right after Mohammed Abu Khdeir was killed. He was the east Jerusalem teenager who was burned alive by Israeli Jewish extremists. And that was then, of course, like also part of a whole cycle of killings targeting Israeli and Palestinian young people. Actually, what happened sort of after that, Mohammed was in east Jerusalem in a neighborhood called Shuafat. And some of our singers are from Shuafat. And basically around that time, Shuafat was basically erupted and violence was full of police was basically locked down and we were deciding, what do we do as a choir that is trying to get ready for our first international tour to Japan? And like a couple of weeks from then, we had our first tour coming up. And do we have rehearsal? Do we not have rehearsal? Is it safe for kids to come to rehearsal? Will only one side of Jerusalem come to like so many questions like What do you even do at that moment and what are the implications, not just for like, are we going to be ready for this tour, but like what are the implications on a value level of deciding to have rehearsal, deciding not to have rehearsal, deciding to make it optional? All of these are options with implications.

Micah Hendler: [00:03:46] But in any case, what we decided to do was basically to say, Look, we’re here. We’re open for business. Nobody has to come. And certainly if you’re feeling like physically unsafe, like please don’t come right, like like, please do not put yourself in physical danger, just to come to rehearsal. Like, we love singing, we love each other. But like, it’s not worth somebody getting hurt. So we we make that announcement about half of the kids are able to come and a pretty even distribution actually from east and west Jerusalem, which was really reassuring. And then after about a half hour in, this girl from Shuafat comes to rehearsal. And meanwhile, as I mentioned, Shuafat was basically in lockdown, not like a COVID lockdown, like a police like army lockdown. And this girl was came to rehearsal and everyone was like, Oh my God, like, are you OK? Like, what’s going on? Like, she lived around the corner from Mohammed Abu Khdeir and, you know, I was talking to her and and basically was like, How did you even get here? And she basically said, look like I was sitting in my living room listening to the gunshots and smelling the. Your gas and we’re just kind of like going crazy, and I couldn’t take it anymore, so I left my house and I walked down the street and the soldiers tried to stop me, but I ran away. And this is exactly where I want to be.

Mindy Peterson: [00:05:14] Wow.

Micah Hendler: [00:05:15] And to me, the fact that in the most extreme of contexts where faced with like direct political violence from the other side, quote unquote to basically try to prevent this from happening, that this incredible young woman decided that a group of Palestinians and Israelis together was where she felt most safe and most herself and most welcome and most valued and most heard was, to me, a powerful demonstration that we were doing something right.

Mindy Peterson: [00:05:55] Yeah, that’s such a powerful story. And even knowing it, you know, I just get chills. And yeah, what a strong endorsement of the effectiveness of the program that was going on. So what is the Jerusalem Youth Chorus? How do you explain it to someone who’s not familiar with it?

Micah Hendler: [00:06:14] Sure. So the Jerusalem Youth Chorus is an Israeli Palestinian youth music and dialogue project that basically brings together young people from east and west Jerusalem who otherwise would have basically no opportunities in a normal course of a day, a week a year, a lifetime, perhaps to meet somebody from the other side of the city at eye level in a situation where there’s actually an opportunity for them to build a relationship that is based on trust, mutual respect and an opening to actually understanding the world and their city through one another’s eyes and actually hearing one another in a space that is designed to create that container. Where that can actually happen safely, where people actually can be vulnerable, can learn from one another, can share honestly and can even question themselves the world around them, one another and where all of that can happen in this musical container of trust and fundamentally the role of music in that is really building this community, building a sense of shared identity, building relationship, creating a shared goal and a platform at the same time for spreading a message that like this is possible and not just possible, but necessary.

Mindy Peterson: [00:07:51] Yeah, and just a few stats for listeners and correct me if I’m wrong on any of these, but I believe it was established in 2012. Yeah, and it’s the only mixed Israeli-Palestinian choral group in the Holy City High School Program includes around 30 members roughly divided between Israelis and Palestinians. And within that mix, there are Jews. There’s Christians, Muslims from a balance of backgrounds, communities. They bring variety and diversity in their cultural backgrounds, religious, linguistic, political differences. So in a lot of ways, I mean, we really could say that they don’t have anything in common and yet they are coming together, singing together, making music together, listening to one another, feeling safe together, which in itself is huge and dialoguing. So it’s really powerful. Tell us what a typical rehearsal is like that this girl was was so desperate to be and where she felt safe and where she wanted to be in the midst of all of this trauma and violence that was happening.

Micah Hendler: [00:09:03] Sure. So we have one weekly rehearsal in a normal week. Obviously, sometimes we do special projects or retreats or tours or whatever. But like in a normal week, we have one four hour rehearsal, which is a lot. But what was actually interesting is in the beginning of sort of the process of founding the chorus, we had an interesting question of like, OK, what’s the rehearsal schedule going to be? And normally I thought, OK, well, like maybe we’ll have like two rehearsals a week or an hour and a half or two hours because that’s kind of reasonable. And people were like, No, it’s going to be much harder to get people in the door. So like, once they’re there, you keep them rather than saying, Oh, they’ll also come another day a week, and that has to do with both just sort of physical difficulties, often around freedom of movement. It also has to do with just the chaos that is inherent to. Working in Jerusalem, the fact that things there are just more fluid and less predictable, there’s less of a sense of control that anybody is like, Oh yeah, we’ll definitely make this plan in a month and it’ll definitely happen. What I learned was kind of things are much more last minute because you kind of don’t know what’ll happen in a month from now. Like, maybe there will be a war. There is. There’s much less sense of certainty. And so once you’ve got them in the door, like, use that time. So our rehearsals are four hours long. They involve an opening hour of singing and then a short break and then an hour and a half of facilitated dialogue and then another longer break and then another hour of singing at the end.

Micah Hendler: [00:10:44] And that’s deliberately structured in a way that the music really holds the space for this deeper dialogue. Work to happen in a way that can be challenging is inherently challenging, like if it’s not challenging, you’re not doing it. And dialogue isn’t really fun. Usually, usually it like makes you want to cry or it makes you angry, or it makes you fundamentally question everything you thought you knew or things that are generally difficult and don’t necessarily lead you to want to come back every time. But the music does. And so it’s like the music is sort of this almost like outer circle. That’s like pulling in and the dialogue is this sort of inner core that’s like pushing out, if that makes sense. And so there’s this equilibrium in the middle where people really in the beginning like, come for the music, but ultimately are able to stay because we have this space of conflict transformation, like within the group where when things come up, we’re able to handle them. And it’s also an engine that actually creates new understanding and new material for musical creativity. And that’s just something that is also something we’ve been particularly leaning into in recent years has been the element of songwriting and collaborative composition. Yeah, and really taking what happens in dialogue and the learnings from that process and expressing that as a group in original music.

Mindy Peterson: [00:12:17] Yeah, I want to come back to that because I could see that being a really powerful way of bringing that music and dialogue, those two elements even closer together. It’s really interesting, though, how you space them out and interweave them during this four hour practice time because I can see how they would kind of balance each other out and I could see the music portion being a little bit of a reset button. Exactly. Some of the emotions that come up during the dialogue and some of the feelings that may be hard to articulate. And then you start singing with these people. And music is such a bonding experience it’s hard to be angry with exactly when you’re making music together. So I could see that sort of resetting the emotional button a little bit and just sort of cooling the temperature if it starts to get a little bit heated. Well, and I’ll point out to that. Beyond these weekly rehearsals, the chorus also performs concerts together. They have retreats, recording sessions and go on tour, which you alluded to earlier with the dialogue. Talk to us some more about how the dialogue works. You have trained Palestinian and Israeli facilitators guiding the discussion. Talk to some more about what that looks like and how that works.

Micah Hendler: [00:13:35] Absolutely. So the dialogue process is super key to what we do. There are a number of groups that bring together Israeli and Palestinian young people to make music, but very few actually go deeper than that. Most are kind of like, yeah, they’ll like play music together and be friends, and that’s like our contribution to peace. But in many ways that can actually do damage. So the dialogue is super key in terms of the impact that we have. And I would argue that the idea of infusing musical spaces with some of this facilitated group process work is something that we could definitely use more of in the U.S. as well. Yeah. To say the least on basically name like any issue, on any axis, on any dividing line.

Mindy Peterson: [00:14:25] Totally. I mean, as I was looking through this information and preparing for our conversation, I was thinking the youth that you’re working with there have experienced so much trauma and violence on a level that I can’t imagine, but it’s sort of like an exponential example of what we do experience and our own little microcosm of the political divide or marriage relationships or friendships or parents and children or neighbor. You know, there’s conflict is inherent in life. It’s a part of being in relationship with people. And one thing that just. Really caught my attention about your tagline for lack of a better word. Was it was transcending conflict through song. It’s not eliminating conflict, it’s transcending conflict. And yeah, we all have conflict and we don’t really do a very good job of teaching how to transcend conflict and work through conflict.

Micah Hendler: [00:15:21] There are many different ways of structuring dialogue encounters and different sort of theories around how to do that, depending on context. What we do is primarily a values based approach, and so what that means is that instead of just sort of jumping headfirst into like, OK, what happened in nineteen forty eight? What happened in nineteen sixty seven? Whose fault is it? Whose politics are this that? What about the wall? What about settlements or is it starting out? We get there, but we start out at a place first of just creating trust, creating ground rules, creating common understandings of how we even want to talk to each other

Mindy Peterson: [00:16:01] In terms of,

Micah Hendler: [00:16:02] You know, even just like, is it OK to interrupt somebody or not, right? Because in Jerusalem, in most conversations, the understanding is that if you don’t interrupt somebody, you’ll never get a chance to speak OK. Like if you listen to any like radio show or like news, you know, it basically is like if I don’t interrupt you and assert my opportunity now to speak because I’ve created it violently, I don’t get to speak. You’re just going to keep talking over me. So even just the fundamental question of like, are we going to let people finish their sentences needs discussion. So even just like setting some of those expectations that this is going to be a different type of space, that’s number one. But then we really focus on giving the singers some concepts and value language that they can use to clearly understand and express their feelings, their opinions, their experiences in ways that have implications that are broader than just like I experienced this thing. Let’s say we’re talking about equality. We talk a lot about equality in the chorus and the different types of equality and whether equality is the most important thing. Like, what about when you have equality stacked up against freedom? Like, we like freedom also, but like you can’t always have both.

Micah Hendler: [00:17:19] How do you understand any of those things in your family, in your neighborhood, in your city, in the conflict, in the world, on the axis of gender, on the axis of ethnicity and the access of socioeconomics and people plug in in different places to that discussion. But fundamentally, what it does is it creates some a shared vocabulary around what we’re actually talking about beyond just sort of like headlines and policy positions. But actually fundamentally like when I’m talking to you about something that I feel is deeply wrong, like I can also explain to you why, like last week you said that you really cared about everyone having an equal opportunity. But like now, I don’t have the ability to travel because I don’t have a passport. There are ways in which using the value language that people have actually honed in a context that is less polarizing and less zero-sum than the hot button issues of like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that I started with, actually helps people to then approach those issues in a way that can generate new understanding as opposed to just having people like shut down.

Mindy Peterson: [00:18:36] Uh huh.. Wow. Those facilitators who who moderate and coordinate those discussions must be really skilled. It’d be really amazing to watch that process in action. My guess is that the kids who are experiencing this really have some spillover benefits that affect their families and their communities, not to mention their own personal develop of leadership skills and communication skills. What are you seeing in terms of that?

Micah Hendler: [00:19:03] Yeah, absolutely. I think it impacts a lot of different dimensions, as you were saying of their lives, of their families, of their communities, their schools and their city and the world, frankly, through then the platforms that we’re able to create for these singers voices and experiences to be shared. One of the things that’s been really amazing to see is how these singers stick together in times when everyone is telling them not to. So like the example of the opening story of what happened in 2014, what was fascinating just about that was like, usually, as I mentioned, dialogue is not fun and people hate it, and sometimes people try to skip it and people try to be like, Oh, I have to go to the bathroom and then they’ll be in the bathroom for like an hour because they just don’t want to deal with what’s going on. And really like that happened. And we’re also we’re dealing with teenagers, right? So like that, that makes sense. And that’s also one of the. Reasons why we do this sort of music dialogue, music like Sandwich Thing is because people like and that’s one of the things that I learned actually from another program that I was researching that at the time was trying to do something similar. Basically, if you just put the dialogue at the beginning or the end, people will come late or leave early. But if you put it in the middle, like people want the music, right? So at that point, you kind of creating a container for it that people don’t want to miss.

Mindy Peterson: [00:20:24] It sounds like music is really the for sure for these youth. Definitely. What are some of your other thoughts on the role that music plays in making this happen, making it successful, bringing students in to begin with? Can you have the dialogue without the music? Talk to us about the role that music plays. Sure.

Micah Hendler: [00:20:42] Well, I mean, I think, as you noted, music is the fundamental reason why singers come because they want to sing. They want to have a chance to grow, to express themselves musically, to be on the radio, to perform with stars, to tour internationally, to do all these things that music is ultimately what brings them. And music also is then what creates the trust, what creates the set of relationship opportunities that can be sort of a different level of engagement with one another than the current levels of engagement that are available in Jerusalem in a normal circumstance, which are basically me versus you or us versus them?

Mindy Peterson: [00:21:25] Mm hmm. How did you start the chorus?

Micah Hendler: [00:21:27] I moved to Jerusalem after graduating from college. I was studying music and international studies at Yale. I moved to Jerusalem to see if I could ultimately implement some of the things that I’d learned in my senior thesis trying to study whether something like this was possible in Jerusalem. Something like seeing something like the chorus. Yeah, music and dialogue with Israeli and Palestinian youth in Jerusalem on a long term basis.

Mindy Peterson: [00:21:52] Ok, so it started in your thesis then?

Micah Hendler: [00:21:55] Well, it really started way before the thesis. Basically, I’ve been singing my whole life and fundamentally experiencing singing in groups as a place that I just felt at home, felt included, felt welcome. Felt valued. And seeing how that actually combined with powerful facilitated dialogue work. When I was in high school, I went to Seeds of Peace, which is a summer camp and dialogue project for youth from conflict regions specifically focused around the Middle East, but also other places. That was the first time that I had really been exposed to a process like that and heard a lot of the things that I had been basically shielded from growing up in my education, whether knowingly or unknowingly. And that blew my mind. And then I experienced in the process of pursuing this dialogue work how music and collective singing actually created a container of shared identity, of community, of feeling like we’re part of the same thing that allowed the dialogue process to work better. And I was like, That’s cool. And then by that point, I was in college. I was also studying Arabic. I had studied Hebrew at a Jewish school that I went to in elementary school and I was then a music counselor at Seeds.

Micah Hendler: [00:23:07] And then at that point I thought, OK, so you can do this at a summer camp in Maine where you control all the variables and no one can leave. But can you do this on the ground in Jerusalem, where you control no variables and everyone can leave? That then, was my senior thesis question of basically like how how could something like this work? Can something like this work? One of the fundamental learnings that I took from that was around incentives was around like why people join programs like this and why people stay. And it’s very different often from the reasons why you started the program in the first place. And that’s OK. In fact, that’s good because if everyone only came because they want to quote unquote make peace, then you’re pardon the expression preaching to the choir. And the idea is really that people who are vastly different and don’t even necessarily see eye to eye on even why they’re there come. Ultimately, if you can create community and common purpose from that, that’s really much deeper a transformational work. Wow.

Mindy Peterson: [00:24:09] Well, Tol, tell us how JIC is funded and if listeners are interested in getting involved in this, how they can do that.

Micah Hendler: [00:24:17] Thank you so much for asking. J.c. is a nonprofit and we are completely supported by donations from mostly generous individuals around the world who believe that this work should happen and that this community should exist, and that this music has power and value in changing conversation and opening hearts and minds. We would love your support, and so anyone who is who is particularly interested in learning more can visit our website at Jerusalem Youth Chorus. Org. There’s a tab called Get Involved and that will show you many different ways that you can get involved, either by supporting us financially, by seeing if there are ways. Is perhaps that you might want to volunteer a skill or help us in some other way? Maybe you want to host us and help us plan a tour to your city. Maybe you want to share one of our music videos in a community that you’re a part of. There are many, many different ways for us to engage. We also do music dialogue workshops for people anywhere because we can do this over Zoom, where basically you have a chance to meet some of the singers and experience some of the ways that we hold and create a transformative space in like an hour, hour and a half on Zoom to actually experience some of the dialogue process to experience some of the collective musical expression and get a taste of how that could be applicable in your community, in your life where we want to meet you.

Mindy Peterson: [00:25:51] Well, I will definitely include those links in the show notes to make it really easy for your listeners to just click on that and learn more. Mike, you’re also a founding partner of Raise Your Voice Labs. Tell us more about that before I let you go. What’s that all about?

Micah Hendler: [00:26:07] Sure. So raise your Voice Labs, as you mentioned so beautifully in the opening of this episode, is a creative culture change company. We basically take the kinds of processes that we’ve been talking about in a Jerusalem context and adapt them to different communities around the world. Teams at companies, choral groups to different groups who are trying to figure out who they are as a collective to try to figure out how they can have the most impact, how they can listen to one another better and manage conflict, and how they can fundamentally align around a common purpose that then they can collectively express musically and create original songs and music videos that then can be an asset to them in moving in the direction that they want to go together.

Mindy Peterson: [00:27:01] Wow. So it’s taking this really effective formula and applying it to some of these other contexts that we were talking about earlier in our conversation.

Micah Hendler: [00:27:10] Exactly. And we’ve done this work with folks from choirs in different places, particularly during the pandemic, who are who are thinking like, how can we engage meaningfully right now and actually using that opportunity to pause and actually break open some of the things that maybe had gone ignored for decades and really explored some of the fundamental purposes, some of the fundamental relationships, some of the fundamental values of the group repurpose them in the collaborative creation of new music. Ultimately, helping the group to then move in a totally new direction has been really powerful. So we’ve done that with musical groups. We’ve done that with teams at Fortune 500 companies. We’ve done that with groups of divided Americans on a whole variety of different spectrum. We’ve done that with youth. We’ve done that with folks from just a whole variety of different contexts, and it’s been really deep.

Mindy Peterson: [00:28:15] Wow. Well, I love how you take a problem. And instead of focusing on the problem, whether it’s quarantining because of a pandemic or a narrative that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not reconcilable, you take that in. Instead, you find the opportunities in there and you just run with it. Love that. Micah, ask all my guests to close out our conversation with a musical ending coda by sharing a song or a story about a moment that music enhanced your life. We’ve had many stories about music enhancing your life, but tell us about the song that you’re going to share with us in closing.

Micah Hendler: [00:28:55] Yeah, sure. So I’m really excited that you’ll have a chance to hear our rendition or our second rendition of the song Home by Phillip Phillips. We at the beginning of the pandemic were able to bring together not just members of the chorus and alumni, but basically our global family and many different incredible artists whom we had gotten to collaborate with over the years, who are all over the world. And again, seeing the fact that we were all separated and not able to meet in person not only as an extraordinary challenge, but also as an opportunity to bring folks together in this totally new collaborative creation, a re-imagination of what home can mean. And so this song is home from home.


Transcribed by Sonix.ai