In the basement of a church in Chestnut Hill, teenagers huddled in groups to talk about race relations in America — everything from the recent shooting in Charleston to the use of slurs in everyday language was on the table.
These are the students of Jerusalem Youth Chorus, Pennsylvania Girlchoir and Keystone State Boychoir. Coming off the high of a Sunday night sold-out show at the Kimmel Center dedicated to the victims of the Charleston shooting, the Philadelphia-based choirs were tackling the weighty topics with the guidance of their peers from Jerusalem.
The chorus from Jerusalem, made up of Christian, Jewish and Muslim teenagers — both Israeli and Palestinian — pairs each of its weekly rehearsals with dialogue exercises to help the teens talk about prejudices, social issues and conflict in the Middle East.
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Their rehearsals start and end with singing, with a break in between for "dialogue workshops."
Micah Hendler, the group's founder and director, said music holds everyone together during those tough conversations.
"The music creates the safe space and feeling of community and the feeling of working together for something," he said. "You can challenge and be real with each other and really get at some hard issues."
He added that even when his singers get frustrated — screaming, crying or even walking out of the room — they will regroup to continue singing.
Yaara Mokady of Jerusalem Youth Chorus said this full-circle approach can be a refuge for the teens, who confront conflict daily.
"After having a hard dialogue and communicating, and trying to say what we want but not hurting each other — it's so complicated — singing is like, it's an escape," she said.
Eva Whittaker of the Pennsylvania Girl Choir said she was looking forward to learning about the dialogue workshop process from her peers.
"[I want] to see how we can become better problem solvers and be better community members, and just try to do our best to solve these problems and be the most open, flexible people we can," she said.
Despite the language barrier between many of the students and some perceived cultural differences, the group quickly bonded, breaking out into spontaneous dance and song and touring the City of Brotherly Love together.
"Just having those moments with them, where it was like 'everybody drop everything, we are going to dance, we are going to sing,' and really getting into the moment with them was incredible," said Indira Joell, a singer with the Pennsylvania Girlchoir.
That's what Mokady said ultimately makes the difference.
"The music is mostly the thing that holds us together," she said."If we don't have music, we would probably be enemies. If we don't have a bigger thing that holds us together, we can't communicate, and the music is the thing that holds us together."