The Human Spirit: My dear Jewish brethren
...who continually lambaste Israel.
Come thee to a
Jerusalem, like so many places in the world, this is the time of year for
fostering fellowship. Yes, even here in the Middle East. There’s a Hanukka
tradition of making peace within the family.
It might reflect the
repentance and forgiveness from the Joseph saga that we read in synagogues this
time of year, the healing in the Temple under the Hasmoneans, or the impact of
the Hanukka lights burning inside our homes. Maybe all three. But I want to
reach out to you, my fellow Jews who make me so upset when I see your Jewish
names among those who accuse us, your Israeli family, of every iniquity.
I know you feel a moral obligation to tell us how to make peace and how to treat
our neighbors, and that you believe you would be living by a higher standard of
tolerance if you were the ones facing rockets, bus bombings, rogue vehicles and
I understand that you feel it’s an expression of Jewish
yearning for justice when you champion the civil rights of fellow students who
gag at the site of an Israeli flag or even a SodaStream label. Our
imperfections, not our achievements, shape your identity. I’d like you to
Words won’t do it. Let’s try music.
Come with me to a
concert called “Bridges of Light” just down the street. Here in Israel, in the
city of not-always-progressive religious ideas, the principal performer is Rasha
Hamad. She’s blind and autistic.
She’s Muslim. She was born in Jenin, but
she lives in Beit Jala, a suburb of Bethlehem, in a place called Jemima House,
which is run by Dutch Christians.
Rasha’s teacher, Devorah Schramm, has
been compared to Anne Sullivan, who changed the life of Helen Keller. Schramm is
an Orthodox Jew. She wears a wig out of modesty. She was born in Boston, not
particularly religious, but the anti-Semitism she experienced as a music student
at Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, impelled her to seek her
religious roots. It’s her belief in God that has motivated her to become Rasha’s
devoted teacher. Schramm and her husband Lenn have brought up four daughters,
now all married in Gilo – what we Jerusalemites call a neighborhood and BDS
activists call a settlement.
Gilo and Bethlehem are only a few miles from
each other. Rasha has a pass to come into Jerusalem – the soldiers at the border
even play her CD. Schramm can’t go the other way, because Israelis are
prohibited from traveling there. A few times, Schramm has had to meet her pupil
in the House of Hope school on the border, because Rasha gets very agitated if
she has to miss a lesson.
During the second intifada, both Gilo and
Bethlehem were under gunfire.
Schramm and the Jemima staff were
continuously on the phone with the people in Jemima House, checking in on each
other – or as Schramm calls it, “holding each other’s hands.”
commitment isn’t a “come for two weeks and help the poor people” visit. She’s
been teaching Rasha for 26 years. I love listening to her talk about Rasha’s
music, how Chopin resonates for her, how now, after all these years, there’s new
progress in the depth of the interpretation.
She worries about her
student’s moods in the cold, dark winter, when she seems sad, and waits for the
burgeoning that usually accompanies the spring.
In all this time, she’s
never met Rasha’s mother.
I have visited Jemima House. I wrote about
Rasha, among other children there, in 1991 for Woman’s Day magazine in America
when she was 16. This sanctuary of kindness was the dream come true of Helen and
Edward Vollbehr, two pious Christians from Holland. They couldn’t have
biological children because of a car accident in Helen’s childhood while her
father was serving as a missionary in a rural outpost. They had come to the Holy
Land to serve God and take in 22 developmentally challenged Arab children to
care for and bring up. Back in those days, a Jewish Israeli like me could still
take the city bus to Bethlehem.
Social workers had referred Rasha, age
four, and her five-year-old sister Nadia to the Vollbehrs. Both girls were blind
and mentally challenged. Nadia was also deaf. Their ashamed teenage parents had
locked them away.
“We were shocked when we saw them,” Edward told me back
then. “They crawled on their behinds and used their feet like hands. Their hands
were knotted up in fists and they kept poking at their eyes.”
Vollbehrs taught the two girls to eat and walk. They dressed the girls in long
shirts and sewed up the sleeves so they’d stop abusing their eyes. It took a
year to toilet-train them.
“Don’t think it wasn’t depressing – it was,”
said Edward. “I couldn’t see how we’d ever succeed.”
One evening, Helen
quieted the children by playing a cassette of choral music.
When the tape
finished playing, Helen sang a bar of music. Rasha sang back the harmony. Not
only was she talented, but music offered a way to get through to her.
Helen took care of all these challenged and challenging children while fighting
her own battle with breast cancer. She has since died. Edward has moved back to
Holland, but Rasha has remained at Jemima House, under the care of other good
Helen believed Rasha needed better instruction than she could
provide and turned to the Jerusalem Conservatory for Music and Arts, also called
“Hasadna,” to find a proper teacher for the girl. The school director called
Like many residential homes for the challenged, Jemima House has
been on the brink of sending children home, and certainly conserving funds by
cutting back on Rasha’s lessons. Usually an angel appears.
In 2005, the
Film Division of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles produced a
documentary called Beautiful Music. It won a prize at the Hollywood Film
Festival and secured an extension of Rasha’s musical education.
from God,” says Schramm.
THE CONSERVATORY works out of the Adam School on
Jerusalem’s Emek Refaim Street. That’s where the Winter Concert takes place on a
Saturday night. The audience is filled with parents and relatives and interested
Bethlehem residents and Jerusalemites like me who like music and who like the
idea of this concert. About half of the audience is wearing religious head
The evening begins with a medley of Hanukka songs, performed
in a duet by two teenage Jewish girls, one from a Russian background, the other
from an Ethiopian one. They have lovely, lilting voices.
Rasha’s time on stage. Dressed in a black skirt and shirt, she’s no longer a
child banging on the table or a teenager with whims. She’s a concert pianist who
knows how to command an audience she’ll never see. She opens with her beloved
Chopin – not her signature Mazurka, but another, Op. 17 No. 4.
the only challenged student performing. There are several talented Jewish
musicians with disabilities, too. There’s also a band that won a prize at
“I don’t believe in segregating challenged children,” says
Schramm. “They need to play and perform with everyone.”
Two Dutch music
therapy interns from Jemima House sing a medley of Christmas songs in English
and Dutch, with Rasha accompanying them on the piano. I’m a little nervous that
someone in the audience might spoil the harmony, but as it turns out, I needn’t
Hasadna’s children’s choir sings a song called “Tutira Mai” – in
Maori, of all things.
And the grand finale, which brings everyone singing
and performing together: a song by Naomi Shemer, made famous by the late
Instrumentalists and singers. Rasha and Lea and Inge and
Yiftah and the audience.
Those who don’t know the Hebrew hum along.
The sighted and the sightless.
It lifts me to my feet.
rhapsody of optimism, called simply “Light.”