GREAT BARRINGTON -- On the eve of a new 72-hour ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, a group of 18 Arab, Israeli, American and students of other nationalities and ethnicities came together more than 5,000 miles away to share songs and ideas for peace, resolution and understanding at The Guthrie Center.
Sunday night's program was the culmination of the first Summer Youth Summit sponsored by Music in Common, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to strengthen, empower and educate communities through the universal language of music. Based in Sheffield and led by Executive Director Todd Mack, the program offers school year flagship programs in Berkshire County and Israel, and has also conducted programs in other parts of the world.
"It's not so much about the music and making a perfect song but more about building relationships and meeting new people from so many different cultures and backgrounds," said Raiche Wright, 18, of Lenox. She said she enjoyed the experience she had with Music in Common, also known as MiC, while attending Lenox Memorial Middle and High School and jumped at the opportunity to attend this summer's summit.
The delegates stayed in a residence hall on the campus of Bard College at Simon's Rock from Aug. 5 until Monday, when they returned to their hometowns.
They spent three days working to conceptualize a theme for their song and video, writing lyrics, composing the music and filming. They also went on various field trips around the region.
"It was a lot of people bringing together their ideas and we learned to compromise," said Elizabeth Donato, 17, of the songwriting process.
Both she and fellow participant Lily Biacho, 15, are both originally from South Sudan, Africa, but live in Portland, Maine. They are members of Pihcintu, a multinational children's chorus, which shares similar ideals and values with Music in Common.
Among the themes incorporated into the to-be-titled song they created are freedom, being lucky to be alive, ending war and "learning to change yourself in order to make a bigger change in the world."
"I'm going to keep this message with me forever," said Ruth Lewandowski, 13, of Maine and Kazakhstan.
Nancy Rogers, who has been coordinating programs for MiC for the past 20 months, praised the students, Mack and the supporting staff and volunteers for making the Summer Youth Summit possible and successful.
"To see these teens from different backgrounds, ethnicities and cultures come together for a short time without judgment and actually do something positive is something we don't get to see often. They interacted so authentically. It's been amazing," she said.
Lili Zyszkowski, 13, of Southfield, and Amun Prophet, 14, of Deerfield, said MiC helped them become better musicians and learn more about the current conflict in Gaza.
Shadi Alasad, 17, of Palestine, said he's been able to discover creative writing as a new form of self-expression through the program.
Both he and Karwan Jad Abbas, also 17, have participated in MiC programs at their schools in Israel and are eager to continue their work. "It's been changing ideas within me, and that's a good thing," Abbas said.
Maya Kiswani and Batel Asmare, both 18, said one of the best parts of the program was finding each other. Kiswani is Arab and calls Palestine home. Asmare is Jewish and lives in Jerusalem, only about 15 minutes from Kiswani's home.
"We got out of the bubble," said Kiswani of why she and Asmare were able to become friends. But they said most of their friends at home wouldn't be as likely to befriend someone from a different ethnic group. They said they at least plan to keep in touch, not letting their friendship fade after a week working together.
Mack said Music in Common, through its connections throughout Israel and the United States, will keep in touch with the students to support them as cultural ambassadors who can share their experiences and the music that they created as a unified group.
During Sunday night's performance, which also included individual and small group performances, Shaked Cohen, 17, of Jerusalem, reminded the full room what young people are up against when it comes to the work of peace-making and change.
She will soon begin her mandatory service with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and told the audience, "Kids my age are trying to stop the fighting in Gaza ... I wish the Middle East will know better days."
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