AVITAL lives in Jerusalem, one of the oldest cities in the world. It is a sacred city for Christians, Jews and Muslims, where one can find a variety of historical and religious icons like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Wailing Wall or the Dome of the Rock. It is a unique city, divided and claimed by both Israel and Palestine as their capital. As a result of many years of dispute, East and West Jerusalem’s populations are growing apart, blind and unaware of the realities of the inhabitants of the other side, a fact that will just make it even more difficult to find understanding between these two peoples.
Avital Kagan is currently 19 years old and she has been singing since a very young age. She started in a kids chorus that promoted coexistence among boys and girls in the city, and later on she engaged with the YMCA Jerusalem Youth Chorus, a choral and dialogue program for Israeli and Palestinian high school students in Jerusalem. Its mission is to provide a safe space for youth from East and West Jerusalem to grow together by using song and music as a vehicle. “When my mom heard about the YMCA program she asked me whether I wanted to audition for it, and I said – Yes, sure! -. Besides, Micah Hendler, the founder and director, came and spoke about the project at my school and a lot of my school friends joined the chorus. That’s basically how the YMCA chorus was founded and how I started participating in it when I was fourteen”
Avital was born and raised in Jerusalem, and even though she lives in a wealthy and safe area of the city, she has always felt that something wasn’t right “Growing up here is like being constantly exposed to the conflict. For instance, from a very young age, we have practices to go into a bomb shelter. Also, if you have older siblings, you’ll see them going to the military service. It’s like is hanged up in the air that we are basically living in a war zone”. But despite that, not many people know about what is happening on the Palestinian side of the city, because they are not exposed to it or because media doesn’t show it “the casualties and the consequences of the conflict on the other side is something that a lot of people aren’t aware of”
Thanks to initiatives like the JYC, teens from any part of the city are bound together and united through music. Avital has been participating in the YMCA Jerusalem Youth Chorus for more than four years and she is grateful to the experience “Some of my closest friends are people that I met in the chorus and, if it wouldn’t had been for it I wouldn’t had been able to meet them, because they live in parts of the city that I don’t go to, even that I have never been to” Sometimes there is a language barrier among them, as Palestinians usually speak Arabic and Israelis typically speak Hebrew, but thanks to the project they have managed to use music as a tool for interaction “we use a lot of non-verbal communication and body language and we are still able to joke around and be a group even if we don’t share a language, which I think is very special. Thanks to this I have a better understanding on how other people are”
Avital is currently doing her national service at the Jerusalem International YMCA (under which the YMCA Jerusalem Youth Chorus operates), an organization that has been serving the people of Jerusalem for over 133 years, promoting peaceful coexistence between its communities “YMCA is a very big centre, where we offer a lot of services. There is a gym, a pool, a restaurant, a hotel, and we offer classes… and anybody from either side of the city can come and sign up for this classes and feel perfectly safe here”
Luckily, experiences like Avital’s are not an exception, and more tolerant and open-minded communities that work towards a future of peace are being build “I know a lot of people have had their minds changed after being involved in the YMCA Jerusalem Youth Chorus. In my case, being part of this initiative developed me a lot as a singer and as a musician but also, meeting people from the other side who had been through hardships and different experiences has definitely opened my eyes and I am sure I now see the world in a different way than if I would had never joined the chorus. This is one of the many reasons I think these programs are so important and should be broadly promoted”
Thanks to its impact on youth in Jerusalem this project has gained popularity among the international community, and attention is being driven to the use of music as mediator in conflicts resolution. Sasha Fix and Yehia Abu Nijmeh, two Avital’s chorus mates, narrate their experience in this video which clearly shows the power of such initiatives, which may hopefully take us to a future of peace, love and understanding.