When the lines between Israel advocacy and unadulterated human nature get entangled, it’s time for a fresh look in the mirror. A recent coast to coast tour of the United States is a telling example of how a bold public relations initiative can take us far enough to realize that our greatest treasures are closer to home than we ever imagined.
At first glance, the Ariel World Dance Troupe delegation to the United States was typical. The teen dancers were offered a two-faceted opportunity, both to represent their community, and to see the world. The itinerary was developed to accommodate both goals, allowing them to tour famous landmarks in between their scheduled performances. All elements of the delegation seemed to be clearly defined. There were dancers, choreographers, an emcee, audiences and venues. Everyone knew their role, and the polished product was ready for action.
Admittedly, the producers set ambitious goals. The dance routine promised to tell the story of “Israel, Zionism and Ariel” – a tall order for any hour and a half presentation, let alone for a series of artistic dances. After all, Zionism has become a narrative relegated to history books, and Ariel, located east of the Green Line, is more famous for the 2010 artists’ boycott of the city’s Regional Center for the Performing Arts than for the local talent that grows within the community’s local populace. And yet, despite the historic antagonism and irrespective of scattered skepticism, Ariel’s teenagers informed, dazzled and inspired audiences up and down America’s East and West Coasts.
Perhaps it was intrigue. Maybe it was the quality of the performances. Whatever the reason, the enthusiastic responses were tempered by only one recurrent criticism: “It’s a pleasure to host you here in our community, but you really should be performing in full size stadiums”. Though a flattering remark on the whole, it was surprising to hear it and its variations consistently, wherever we went. Whether the performances were held in synagogues or Jewish Community Centers, churches or educational settings, there was a general apologetic sense of “oh, we’re not worthy”, or “oh, we didn’t realize this would be actually be phenomenal”, or “oh, your performance really deserves a larger audience than the hundreds of people assembled here”. Fortunately, Ariel’s young delegates did not share the pervasive sentiment.
The standing ovation they received at their first performance touched Bekky in a way that she still can’t describe with words. Dani insisted, time and again, that the group would gladly perform for even one person if asked to. And Masha, one of the choreographers, was moved to tears when community representatives spoke of their humbled awe in the face of Ariel’s young, promising representatives. Intuitively, the teens and the leaders understood that, at the end of the day, it was all about the people, not the performance. But it would take two and a half weeks of role playing and front stage positioning until we would sincerely come to terms with that understanding.
Looking back, the dancing costumes helped us communicate creatively, but they also masked the impassioned essence of our teens. On stage, the dancers were truly talented. Off stage, they were simply inspirational. During their down time, the team loved visiting America’s most famous monuments, touring its internationally renowned sites and enjoying the country’s iconic experiences. But upon regrouping after the trip, it was abundantly clear that the places, sights and sounds all paled in comparison with the raw power of genuine human interaction. The personal exchanges between our teenagers and our newfound friends in the United States ignited curious engagement and mutual respect. The message was more poignant than any spokesperson can deliver, and the enduring impact can never be upstaged.
New York City was fun, but there was nothing like bridging cultural gaps by preparing challah and lighting Shabbat candles for the first time with their religiously observant counterparts in the Five Towns. Washington DC was impressive, but the Thanksgiving celebration down the road was the opportunity to share, laugh and cry that the team will forever remember. The tour’s closing cable car ride along the San Francisco pier was beautiful, but who could have imagined that hostesses Masha and Masha could build a sustainable Russian speaking Jewish community that refuses to allow the cheeseburger meal and holiday-tree-adorned room to dim the sanctity of the Hanukah’s group candle lighting ceremony? The people who hosted the group were selfless, gracious and nothing short of phenomenal. The dance team was composed, electrifying and disarmingly personable. And the subtle, dynamic interactions between and among all participants became the inexplicably tangible stuff that will accompany everyone for a lifetime.
Yes, the invitations for return performances and new venues are pouring in. Indeed, it will be difficult to avoid the temptation of appearing before colossal crowds when those offers do present themselves. And although there’s nothing wrong with bringing a healthy dose of Zionism to the masses, our recent experiences have taught the City of Ariel an important truth that we must never forget. It is not the number of cameras, the amount of media exposure or the quantity of fans that will determine the potency of our message. It is us, the people of our community, our integrity, our sincerity and our humanity that will shape hearts, change lives and ensure our collective future.
Thank you, Ariel World Dance Troupe, for sharing this life lesson with me. And thank you, dearest hosts and audiences, for embracing us, and for the personal relationships that are too big for any stadium to hold.