August 3, 2007

The combined Galilee Arches Circus performs in Israel in July.What was a group of American children from St. Louis doing juggling in a parking lot in northern Israel along with Jewish and Arab Israelis on a hot July day? They were getting to know each other, circus style.

The parking lot jugglers in the Galilee city of Karmiel comprised the Galilee Circus troupe (Jewish and Arab kids from northern Israel) and the St. Louis Arches, a Circus Day Foundation youth troupe from St. Louis, Missouri.

The 24-strong group of children, ranging in age from 10 to 18, spent the next two weeks together – practicing, traveling, and putting on shows countrywide, taking them all the way from Kibbutz Sasa in the north to Mitzpeh Ramon in the south, performing for over 2,500 people in 10 locations with a mixture of clowning, acrobatics, and juggling.

The visit was the brainchild of Rabbi Marc Rosenstein, director of The Galilee Foundation for Value Education – Shorashim, which founded the Galilee Circus in 2003. Rosenstein had been in contact with various youth circuses in the States and invited Jessica Hentoff, Circus Day director, to bring a group of children to Israel.

“I wanted the children to see that they are part of a worldwide community, to feel that they are part of something bigger. Their identity is secondary to catching the ball,” said Rosenstein.

Hentoff was initially reluctant, but changed her mind after meeting an 80-year-old woman who wanted to learn acrobatics. “Her approach to life is ‘why not’?” recalled Hentoff. She arrived in Israel not knowing what to expect.

“I didn’t know what level the kids would be at or what training they’d received,” Hentoff told ISRAEL21c. “The Galilee kids were very trusting. They went ahead and did what we asked them to, even it they hadn’t done it before. We put together a show in a day and performed it. We’ve added some things, but it’s basically been the same show ever since.”

The Galilee troupe has learned a lot from their skilled American counterparts, who practice several times a week. “I hoped that the local kids would be inspired by the example of a more ‘professional’ youth circus, learn new skills, and see a model to which they can aspire,” said Rosenstein.

According to Galilee Circus co-director Ahmed Sanalla, “The circus helps us achieve a lot that we wouldn’t be able to achieve otherwise. We’ve come a long way since we first started the circus four years ago.”

And the feeling was mutual on the American performers’ side.

“It’s been fun working with them,” said 15-year-old Elliana Hentoff-Killian from St. Louis. “I thought that the kids would be very different, but I haven’t been able to tell them apart. They aren’t different from us – they just speak a different language.”

Fellow circus member, 17-year-old Matthew Viverito thought that it would be difficult to put on a show because of the language barrier. “It was really easy,” said Matthew. “People have been friendly, patient, and understanding. Pretty soon, you figure out you don’t need as many words as you think!”

Fourteen-year-old Israeli Noam Davidovitch from Karmiel found the experience very challenging. “The American kids are on a higher level than us and we’ve learned a lot from them. They are really nice, much more open, and we connected really quickly.”

Manal Asadi and her twin sister Manar from Deir Al-Assad also enjoyed working with the American troupe. “They help me, I help them,” said Manal.

The whole project was primarily funded by the Beracha Fund, Circus Remedy, and other organizations and individuals in the US and Israel, explained Rosenstein.

“I hoped that by creating a combined troupe of Americans, Jews and Arabs, the local identity distinction would be submerged, and we would all just be members of the Galilee Arches Circus – not Jews, not Arabs – even if only for a few days,” said Rosenstein. “And that’s what happened. They learned to be open to new experiences and new people, overcome their fears, and pull together with the ‘other’ for a common goal.”

According to Hentoff, children tend to concentrate on similarities and where they connect, not what makes them different.

“Teaching children from different cultures to stand on each other’s shoulders may seem like a strange way to promote cooperation and communication, but it’s the technique we use,” she said.

It’s a technique that clearly works, as audiences watching the children perform together were visibly moved.

“One audience member told me that we have created an island of happiness,” related Rosenstein. “I think many who saw the shows felt the same tears in their eyes – maybe out of feeling one is seeing a vision of something that we all long for – the innocence and the total obliteration of barriers, whether social, economic, or gravitational. It’s amazing to see how the children blend in with one another, it doesn’t matter what country or culture they come from.”

Rosentein’s American counterpart Hentoff concurred that the most important lesson learned from the joint production is that the cultural differences could be overcome through cooperation.

“What mattered was these children and the adults with them formed a community that opened a window on joy and hope, peace and love that we hope continues to spread out like ripples in a pond,” she said. “Watching young people performing from their hearts is better than all the technique in the world. It doesn’t matter where you come from, it matters what you do.”

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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