Video and Violins of Peace

A key part of the job of producing documentaries is finding the stories that we will transform from the real experiences of a person, people, event, or place onto the big screen. That search constantly brings us into the lives of individuals internationally who are engaged in a wide variety of meaningful pursuits. Ultimately our cameras do not become the vehicle for many of their accounts, partly because we are a small, largely unfunded organization that can only assume a few major projects at once and partly for a host of reasons related to the potential protagonists and their situations. But having been entrusted with hearing the stories, we feel the obligation to pass them on when the occasions seem right.

In this spirit, we sent an email around in September, sharing the story of Wafaa Younis, a violin teacher in the small Israeli village of Ara, who teaches music to Israeli Jewish and Arab children as well as Palestinian kids living in nearby Jenin. We had been introduced to Wafaa through a supporter whose father we had interviewed in 1998 in connection with a documentary we produced entitled From Kristallnacht to Crystal Day: A Synagogue in Wroclaw Glows Again.

We were particularly moved to share Wafaa’s project (and her search for additional violins for her students) with our viewers because she sent us an email relaying that this past summer she had arranged for her students to perform at a concert for Holocaust survivors in Israel. In doing so, she encountered opposition from Palestinian leader Zakaria Zubeidi, but Wafaa refused to step down. She is committed to teaching the kids music and using their talents to build peace, and nothing will stand in her way.

Our email caught the attention of several individuals. In Olympia, WA, one friend sent Wafaa the child-size violin her daughter had outgrown. Upon receipt, Wafaa sent back an email with a photo of the boy who is now playing that violin. My friend’s email to me stated that her daughter “read a note from [the boy], saw his photo with the violin and wept. She will likely always feel a connection with this small boy. She now has the belief that she can make a difference in this boy’s life as she learns about what is important to her and the world. Sending her own violin has an impact that goes beyond simple charity.”

Another response came from architect Stephen Schwartz. A close friend of Steve’s for many years was a well-respected music lover and reviewer named Jerry Ben-Asher, who passed away a year and a half ago. When Steve heard about Wafaa’s Strings of Freedom orchestra, he was moved to raise money for ten violins in memory of his friend Jerry. The dedication, held last night, was an amazing event. The performers were children who are music geniuses: Calling themselves The Elmo Jool Quartet, the foursome is comprised of Oliver and Justin, who are 16; Jordan, 14, and Elizabeth, 11. They performed in Carnegie Recital Hall in 2003, 2004 and 2005, with Elizabeth making her debut on piano at the age of 5. Significantly, the quartet has made fundraising for worthy causes a priority. Charities that have been the beneficiaries of their performances include the Red Cross Fund for Hurricane Katrina, Families of 9/11 victims, Autism Speaks, World Vision, St Jude’s Cancer Center for Children, and their latest charity, Ministry of Hope, which buys mosquito nets for the children of Malawi in order to reduce malaria.

At the celebration last night the piano, violins and Broadway-sounding voices of the Elmo Jool Quartet had the audience completely transfixed and spiritually moved. Steve spoke about the project, I spoke about Wafaa and her students, and two others spoke about Jerry.

And at the end of the night, enough funds were raised to buy 20 violins of peace for The Strings of Freedom.

Footnote: At the end of our visit with Wafaa back in 2007, we decided not to produce a documentary about her project, largely because Israeli TV was already doing so. But we are extremely excited by all the great karma and large initiatives that came out of our unquenchable quest to identify and convey global stories of peace and courage in one form or another.

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