Jerry Ben-Asher loved music and inspired others with that love — including readers of “Music Notes,” his classical music column, which appeared in this newspaper for decades.
Now, a year and a half after the Short Hills resident’s death, Ben-Asher has inspired a program that will help bring music to children in Israel, both Jewish and Arab.
A New Jersey architect, motivated by two local filmmakers, is spearheading a campaign, in Ben-Asher’s name, to buy violins and perhaps other instruments for students of Wafaa Younis, an Israeli Arab music teacher. Younis lives in the town of Wadi Ara, in the Haifa District.
Younis, 54, has been teaching music to Jewish and Arab children in Israel and to Palestinian children in the refugee camp in Jenin. Many of them had no instruments and their parents had no money to pay her, but Younis, who taught for the Israeli Ministry of Education for 32 years, has found ways to get by with very little.
Twice a year, Younis has her “Strings of Freedom” orchestra — made up of children from all groups — play for different audiences in Israel. This past March, she brought a group of children from Jenin to play for a group of elderly Holocaust survivors in Holon. The performance was a revelation both for the audience members and the musicians, but angered Fatah leadership in Jenin, who resist attempts to normalize relationships with Israelis. They ordered Younis to stay away and called for an end to the music classes in Jenin (see sidebar).
Younis’ story came to the attention of Ellen Friedland and Curt Fissel, a husband-and-wife team from Montclair who make educational documentaries about Jewish culture through their company, JEM-GLO.
Friedland, a lawyer and former writer for NJJN, sent out an e-mail to friends in the United States this past summer telling them about Younis. “This could be a wonderful b’nei mitzva or other community service project! (It’s also an opportunity to give a good musical instrument on the verge of being recycled a much-needed home!),” she wrote. “Feel free to get in touch with us about Wafaa’s contact information if you have ideas regarding how you can help.”
When Livingston architect Stephen Schwartz — who has long known and admired the work Friedland and Fissel do — heard about the couple’s latest effort, it spoke to his strong commitment to Jewish education. He is well known locally for his own particular path to fulfilling that commitment: the projects he organizes that have children building Jewish landmarks out of LEGO blocks at schools and community gatherings.
Friedland’s e-mail struck another chord in Schwartz — his love for music.
At a Rosh Hashana dinner last month, he related the story to his friend, Nessa Ben-Asher of Short Hills. He suggested to Jerry’s widow that inviting donations for violins in his name would be a wonderful way to honor him. She agreed.
“Jerry would have loved this, for sure,” she told NJ Jewish News. “And everything that relates to my unbelievable, wonderful, gentle Jerry is balm for my soul.”
Educating young musicians was a passion for Jerry. “He helped Judith Wharton found the Wharton Music Center in Madison,” Nessa said, “and he started the Livingston Music Group” — a music appreciation society and performance series — “that is still going strong after 50 years.”
Through Friedland and Fissel, Schwartz contacted Younis and told her of the Ben-Asher plan. She was delighted. She wrote back to him about her students, and the kind of instruments they need.
There are still details to iron out and choices to make, for example, whether it makes more sense to buy the instruments here and send them to Israel, or to send the money over and have Younis buy them there.
What is settled, however, is that a bunch of eager young musicians in Israel are going to have far better instruments to play on, and a fearless educator will know she is not alone in her determination to grow the kind of music lovers Jerry Ben-Asher would have kvelled over.
For more information on the Jerry Ben-Asher violin fund, contact Stephen Schwartz at firstname.lastname@example.org. To contribute, make checks payable to Temple B’nai Abraham, with “Ben-Asher violins” in the memo line, and send to Temple B’nai Abraham, 300 E. Northfield Road, Livingston, NJ 07039.