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Jewish-Arab Harmony

Jewish-Arab Harmony

Sandee is the arts and culture editor at the Jewish Week.

David Margalit, 11, gave the slightest of nods, and he and Nasif Francis, also 11, began playing a Mozart Sonata. Margalit and Francis, on piano and violin, made subtle music together, enchanting listeners in a house concert last week on the Upper East Side.

When they finished, they stood and bowed in unison, walked off and, when they thought they were out of sight, gave each other high fives.

A month ago, the two had never met. Margalit is a Jewish boy from Tel Aviv, Francis a Christian Arab from Nazareth. Their musical paths wouldn’t have crossed, if not for The Polyphony Foundation, sponsors of boys’ recent multi-city American concert tour. The foundation, based in Connecticut, works to promote music appreciation and education, and through music, the building of bridges between the Arab and Jewish communities in Israel. In preparation for their travels, Margalit visited Francis’ home, where they discovered their shared passion for music and video games. In the United States, they added hamburgers to that list.

Nabeel Abboud-Ashkar, 35, co-founder and director of programming of The Polyphony Foundation, grew up in Nazareth and was then the only violinist there playing classical music. After his studies in Tel Aviv (physics and music) and Germany, he moved back to Nazareth to start the city’s first classical music school in 2006, the Barenboim-Said Music Conservatory. That school, now known as the Polyphony Conservatory, became one of the finest in the country. After establishing the school and providing young people opportunities he never had, Abboud-Ashkar felt the next step should be to use music to try to lessen the growing tensions between the Arab and Jewish communities — “to play a role in building a civil society, a better society.”

“What better way than to bring the finest young students to make music together,” he says. Last year, Abboud-Ashkar received the Yoko Ono Lennon Courage Award for the Arts.

The Polyphony Foundation also supports a conservatory in Jaffa, as well as music appreciation classes in schools, public concerts, permanent ensembles, a youth orchestra, a chamber orchestra in the Galilee, international tours and scholar-in-residence programs with world-class musicians and professors. Their programs also bring together the participants’ families and community members to witness their high level of musicianship.

A U.S. concert tour last month featured a quartet with two Arab violinists, one Christian and one Muslim, an Orthodox Jewish viola player and a secular Jewish cellist serving in the IDF’s Outstanding Musician Program.

Craig Cogut, founder and managing partner of Pegasus Capital Advisors, who, along with his wife Deborah, co-founded The Polyphony Foundation with Abboud-Ashkar, and now serves as chair, explained that through their community-based programs, the group reaches more than 2,000 Arab and Jewish young people, and provides employment for more than 40 musicians and teachers. When asked if the program makes him hopeful about the future, he said, “The impact of Polyphony on young people who participate and their peers, families and neighbors in the audiences has been remarkable, and that gives me reason for hope.”

Last week, after Francis and Margalit finished playing, Hagit Bar Sella, an 18-year old cellist from Kibbutz Harduf in northern Israel and violinist Yamen Saadi, 16, along with Ron Trachtman, a pianist who teaches in the program, played a Haydin piano trio, with a spirited Hungarian finale, showcasing their big talent.

Bar Sella explained that she and Saadi have become close friends through their music. “When we play together, we forget about the borders between us.”

Margalit, the young pianist added, “We’re all playing the same notes.”

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