Jerusalem's Interreligious Music School

Common Ground for Christians, Jews and Muslims

Jerusalem is a focal point for three world religions. Nestled between the religious communities is the only music school in the Old City, located in the basement of a monastery. Here, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim students learn together to make music. Daniel Pelz paid a visit to the Magnificat Institute

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Members of the youth choir of the Magnificat music school (photo: DW)
Musical dialogue across borders: "Our students belong to the various Christian denominations, they are Muslims and Jewish," tells Hania Sabbara. "Here, they see that they are all similar"

​​ The rehearsals of the Magnificat youth choir provide some of the rare moments when harmony reigns in Jerusalem. Eight teenagers in jeans and trendy tops stand behind brown wooden desks. Above them is the whitewashed vaulted ceiling. Here in the basement of the Franciscan monastery, the narrow alleyways and crowds of people in the Old City seem far away. Only the voices of the choir can be heard. The song they are now rehearsing is called "Flowers."

Hania Sabbara, a Christian Palestinian, conducts the choir. The forty-year old woman is wearing white pants and a green blouse. Her hair is grey. She smiles and gesticulates constantly as she speaks. But when the topic turns to the mission of the music school, she immediately becomes serious. She has been here since the school was founded in 1995.

"Every possible community comes to Magnificat – our students belong to the various Christian denominations, they are Muslims and Jewish," tells Hania Sabbara. "Here, they receive the same classes, the same education, meet together in the choir, and they see that they are all similar."

Side-by-side

The Old City of Jerusalem – to the right is the tower of the Franciscan monastery (photo: DW)
"A separate country within a country": The Old City of Jerusalem is made up of a Christian, a Jewish, an Armenian, and a Muslim quarter

​​ Hania Sabbara knows from her own experience why a music school such as the Magnificat Institute is so important. She grew up in a house not 200 metres away from the Franciscan monastery. Since childhood, Hania Sabbara could look out from the rooftop terrace to a view of the city wall and the church towers. From up here, it immediately becomes apparent that the Old City has at least one thing in abundance – religion. Churches, mosques, and synagogues are packed together into an area that is hardly larger than 30 football fields.

Everywhere from the golden Dome of the Rock to the two domes of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, crosses, stars of David, and crescent moons jut into the air. And sandwiched in-between live around 30,000 people – strictly divided according to religious affiliation. The Old City is made up of a Christian, a Jewish, an Armenian, and a Muslim quarter.

By contrast, one can see members of different ethnic groups at a violin lesson in the Magnificat Institute. The students today are David and Habib. There is little to differentiate the two in their outward appearance – one is ten and the other eleven years old, both have black hair and olive-brown skin. Habib wears a grey and white basketball gear and David has on a grey t-shirt and jeans. Both boys hold a violin in their hands.

Hania Sabbara conducts the youth choir (photo: DW)
"Every possible community comes to Magnificat – our students belong to the various Christian denominations, they are Muslims and Jewish", explains Hania Sabbara, head of the Magnificat Institute

​​ Habib comes from a Christian Palestinian family, while David is an Armenian. Their teacher, Tania Beltzer, is Jewish. She looks forward to the weekly lesson in Magnificat. "The Old City is like a separate country within this country. In my daily life, I rarely meet with Palestinians, Armenians, or Greeks. They are very closed communities," says Tania. "That is why this school is so special. Here you get a glimpse into these communities and meet people that you would otherwise never have met or gotten to know well at all."

"Music connects people"

While their teacher is talking, David sets off for home. He won't be able to relax right yet – he still has to practice his violin. His father Haroud sits on the black leather sofa and watches his son. "There are not enough places in Jerusalem where young people can meet. That is why it is good that they can go to Magnificat", he says.

photo: DW
Forgetting politics and religion: Violin teacher Tania Beltzer with her students David (left) and Habib (right)

​​ Haroud and his son are members of the city's almost 2,000 strong Armenian community. They mostly keep among themselves in the Armenian quarter of the capital. Haroud Aslanian wants something more for his son and this is why he sends him to the Magnificat Institute. "Music connects people and allows them to forget politics and religion, so that they can become a community."

David continues to practice his violin. He is a little too shy for an interview. The eleven-year-old hasn't decided if he'd rather be a professional musician or a pilot. In any case, his parents hope that the music school will help him to become an open-minded person.

Daniel Pelz

© Deutsche Welle/Qantara.de 2010

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

Editors: Klaus Gehrke/Marco Müller, Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de

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