CINCINNATI - It was a night of mourning and a celebration of Israeli life.
The Mayerson JCC of Cincinnati hosted dual events on the night of July 2. The first was a vigil of remembrance for three kidnapped Israeli teens found killed in the West Bank.The second featured a musical performance by the Tzofim Friendship Caravan, a traveling group of teenage Israeli Scouts. After rain forced the memorial indoors, both events were held in the same auditorium, one following the other.
While the gatherings presented a dichotomy of sorts, bringing joy in the wake of tragedy is an all too familiar scenario, said Yair Cohen of JCC Community Shaliach, an emissary from Israel.
“Both events actually present the very delicate reality that Israelis deal with daily, living happily and freely with a lot of hope and success and really living a secure life – singing, dancing and celebrating freedom,” he said. "But at the same time living in a reality where some of our neighbors don’t believe that we have the right to such a life and demonstrate their disagreement with us through violence.”
"We're still here"
The Tzofim Friendship Caravan performed an hour-long musical celebrating Israeli life. The group of teenage Israeli Scouts spends the summer touring America, sharing their lives through song and dance. The performance in Cincinnati featured live music: Latin American, Mediterranean, British and American pop songs performed in English, Hebrew and Yiddish.
Before that, though, a somber crowd first gathered to honor Naftali Fraenkel, 16, Gilad Shaar 16, and Eyal Yifrach, 19, who were killed after being kidnapped while hitchhiking in the West Bank.
Many mourners stayed following the service to watch the Israeli Scouts' performance. As others left, families with children filtered in to fill the venue.
Rising beyond the events of the last few weeks to consistently perform a high-energy show presented a challenge for Danit, 24, Israeli Scout group counselor. She said host families as well as their own families provided support.
“We’re very happy to be here and though it was sad before, we’re still here with our smiles on as Israelis do every time,” she said.
"Life goes on"
Although sadness loomed, Danit emphasized the performance as a celebration of Israel meant to debunk many of the misconceptions of life in that country. Israeli Scout troop member Bar Peres, 17, echoed their intent as one of peace and harmony. He said every song they perform contains a message of hope for a brighter future. The intent is to meet people and share experiences.
Israeli Scout Sara Dese dances with a young audience member.
“The show is to get their attention, of sorts but the true thing that we’re doing here is changing minds and talking to people and showing them that we live in a normal country which is very much loved by us,” he said.
Peres explained the Israeli Scouts are not professional performers, but instead "normal teens" from various cities in Israel. He said they were first selected for their potential then completed weeks of training before hitting the stage. In the midst of their U.S. tour, he said it’s even more important to be positive with the world spotlight focused on their homeland.
“This is a very sad case for all of us, when we heard the news we were very sad,” he said. “But you know, it’s a little bit more important for us now because it creates a fear about our country and it’s not like that. We’re sorry that it happened, it’s not a thing that we prepared for, but life goes on. And we wish there will be peace and we can share love and friendship and that’s what we came to do here.”
Group leader, Danit, 24, said the last three weeks have been challenging for performers.
Unique moments of joy
Sorrow dissipated soon after the Scouts took to the stage. The talented group of 10--five girls and five boys, all ages 16 and 17-- never stopped moving; singing, changing costumes and engaging the audience in dance. Hyde Park resident Sarah Carlson and six-year-old Elijah couldn’t contain their huge smiles during the performance.
“I loved the show, I thought it was wonderful,” she said. “This is my first time and it was really great.”
While each performance brings its own unique moments of joy for troop members, Danit explained one particular moment in each show makes her well with pride and emotion.
“Hearing all of the audience sing 'Hatikvah,' our national anthem, at the end of every show and actually sing along with us,” she said. “It’s an amazing feeling.”
"Hope for the future"
Founded in 1973, the Tzofim Friendship Caravan first came to the United States to bring the message of hope and peace for Israel. The program now includes four caravans of teens who travel across North America including both U.S. and Canadian cities. Cohen sings the praises of the dedicated members of the troops.
“We need to remind ourselves these are 16 and 17 year old kids that are traveling in the United States for 3 months, out of home together, in a van, going from community to community, from state to state, city to city, sometime performing more than twice a day,” he said. “And the ability to stay up and tight and on for three months is nto easy to do.”
The caravan brings an important message of peace in lieu of recent events in his homeland, Cohen said. Although some wounds may never heal, he said the resilience of the Israeli people is embodied in the both set of teens, those who lost their lives and those who still believe in a bright future.
“The tragedy of the three boys who were kidnapped and murdered by Palestinian terrorists is a reflection of what horrors Israelis experience on a daily basis,” Cohen said. “At the same time, it never takes away our hope for peaceful resolution of living with our neighbors in hope for the future.”
MORE: Contact the Tzofim Friendship Caravan Tcaravan@israelscouts.org
(Photos by C. Charlson)