Jewish and Arab children learn cooperation in the Galilee circus

Juggling is just one of many “circus skills” Arab and Jewish children learn together at the Galilee circus. It’s a typical, warm summer evening in the Western Galilee. But the event taking place in the community center in Majd Al-Krum, …

Juggling is just one of many “circus skills” Arab and Jewish children learn together at the Galilee circus. It’s a typical, warm summer evening in the Western Galilee. But the event taking place in the community center in Majd Al-Krum, just a few kilometers outside of Karmiel, is anything but typical: it’s the year-end show of the Galilee Circus, a unique troupe made up of Jewish and Arab children in the area.

The young performers, ranging in age from eight to fifteen, peek around the screens and excitedly wave to family and friends. The audience buzzes with anticipation as the show begins. Over the next forty minutes, the Galilee Troupe shows off its skills: juggling, tumbling, spinning plates, balancing on stilts, and zooming around on unicycles.

The “Shipudim” Troupe (literally, “The Skewers”) entertain the crowd with their humorously named acrobatic moves including “popcorn jumps,” “onion rings,” and “schnitzel rolls.” The performers move smoothly from one act to the next and handle small slips with aplomb. Big smiles contrast with frowns of concentration. They are having fun and sweeping the audience along with their enthusiasm and energy.

As they go through their routines, it’s hard to distinguish the Jewish performers from the Arab ones. Dressed in their colorful circus costumes, they are a unified group of performers taking part in universally loved activities.

For many present, this is more than just a circus show; it’s a live demonstration of multicultural cooperation and togetherness. That’s what the Galilee Circus is all about – promoting interaction between the local Jewish and Arab communities. Formed in December 2003, the circus is the brainchild of The Galilee Foundation for Value Education – Shorashim, a non-profit organization which focuses on fostering intergroup understanding.

The outbreak of violence at the start of the second intifada in September 2000 had led to a rift between the two communities. The Foundation sought new ways to bring the communities together in an environment that fosters mutual trust and understanding. They came up with the idea of the circus – a fun activity that is traditionally multicultural and transcends language barriers since it is based on non-verbal communication. “The beauty of the circus is that it’s neither a Jewish nor an Arab activity – it’s an international language that crosses borders and cultures,” says Rabbi Marc Rosenstein, the Foundation’s director.

“The circus provides a forum where children can find common ground,” says Stuart Kingston, who trains the children in clowning. Kingston, who has performed in Israel, China, and the United Kingdom, says that humor is universal. “Laughter brings people together,” he comments, observing that it’s interesting to see how each child takes a different approach to humor and develops their own style. For Kingston, the benefits of the circus go beyond learning to cooperate with different cultures: “Learning various skills also builds the children’s confidence and creative abilities.”

In the circus, it’s all for one and one for all. “There’s lots of give and take,” Kingston remarks. “The performers have to trust one another and work together as a tightly-knit team,” says Yaniv Eliash, the acrobatics trainer. “They can’t afford to let each other down because someone could get hurt.” Watching the acrobatic routines, it’s clear that the children understand that they are all part of a team – that everyone has an important role to play to ensure the overall performance is a success. There are no individual stars in the Galilee Circus – each child learns every skill.

Ali Hsarmi, thirteen, enjoys the atmosphere of the circus. “I feel like I’m part of a family,” he says. “Joining the circus was the first opportunity I had to meet with Jewish kids and get to know them. It’s important,” Ali beams, whose infectious grin charmed the crowd. Maor Davidovich, fifteen, loves the circus. “I feel totally at home here,” says Davidovich. The feeling of building a circus family was echoed by some of the performers from a previous performance when they stopped the music during a curtain call and said to the crowd, “The Galilee Circus family thanks you with all our hearts!”

That feeling didn’t happen overnight. “It took some time for the children to settle in and get to know one another,” says Gilad Finkel, one of the circus directors. “We played lots of games to introduce the children to the concept of the circus. It helped that they were all learning the international language of the circus. The experience was new for everyone.”

“Initially, the Jewish and Arab kids sat apart from one another,” notes Ahmed Sanalla, circus co-director. “Today, they not only sit together, but they have overcome their fears and have visited each other’s homes.” The circus has led to some of the Jewish participants learning Arabic while the Arab participants have improved their Hebrew.

“The circus is one way to achieve harmony and understanding during times of conflict,” says Rosenstein. “We’re trying to build islands of understanding, small circles of cooperation that will hopefully extend outward into the larger community. So far, we’ve got the children working together, building relationships, and making friends. But we also want to get the parents and wider community more involved.”

Currently, 25 children from Karmiel, Deir Al-Assad, Beine, Majd Al-Krum, and Nahef gather for weekly practices in the art of clowning, acrobatics, and juggling. And this is just the beginning. The Galilee Circus has a “big” vision for the future, a real “big top” where children from all over the region can gather to learn more about each other in a nurturing environment that encourages multicultural cooperation and develops the participants’ creative potential. The first step is to expand the current program into two groups of younger and older children and to draw more children from other towns and villages in the Galilee.

“We’ve been fortunate to obtain funding from the Mirkam Initiatives of the Abraham Fund, the Galilee Development Authority, the Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh, CheckPoint, the Oxford Jewish Center, and the Rashi School (in Massachusetts), which enabled us to get the circus up and running,” notes Foundation director Rosenstein. “However, it will take additional funding to enable us to expand the troupe, purchase more equipment, teach the performers additional skills, and take the circus to the next level.”

To date, the circus has performed at schools, community centers, and summer camps in Karmiel and Majd Al-Krum, as well as on Israeli Educational Television. “We’re always looking for venues to show off the performers’ skills,” says Rosenstein. “The positive reaction from audiences has shown us that we’re doing something significant here, for the participants, their families, and for the community.”

“This is a cultural event that acts as a bridge between communities, turning neighbors into friends,” he explains. “The circus is about making people happy. It brings us closer together through sharing a mutually enjoyable activity. Ultimately, we’d like to see the Galilee circus grow beyond a small local initiative. We invite people from all walks of life to support the Galilee Circus and help it grow.”