The Oberlin Stories Project

On creating Yafo Harmony

Zach Resnick ’16

“I proposed a program that combined all my passions—social justice, music, and language learning—and with a generous CIGSIE grant, I was able to bring it to life in Yafo.”

Zach holding a trumpet.

When living in Jerusalem the year before starting Oberlin, I was lucky enough to be a part of human rights organization ICHAD I feel is doing incredible work while also studying jazz part time at the Israeli Conservatory of Music and doing gigs here and there. But after leaving, I realized I hadn’t immersed myself enough in the two main national groups in the region—the Israelis and the Palestinians. The main reason I hadn’t was that I couldn’t speak Hebrew and Arabic. I set out to rectify that during summer 2013, before even beginning my first semester of college.

I proposed a program that combined all my passions—social justice, music, and language learning—and with a generous CIGSIE grant, I was able to bring it to life in Yafo, arguably the one city in the region where Israelis and Palestinians get along the greatest. In the program, I taught a combination of individual private lessons and group classes to underprivileged residents of Yafo at the Arab-Jewish Community Center. I hoped my teachings offered much more than a standard music program: if I succeeded by the end of my three months of teaching, students would be able to view their instrument as a vehicle for social change and an opportunity to interact and create art with those from different backgrounds.

Without the generous support of Oberlin, which enabled me to offer these classes at no cost to the students, I definitely wouldn’t have been able to reach those most in need. The students were Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians, whose ages ranged from as young as 7 to as old as 61. The group classes consisted of contemporary music theory, ear training, and history of American rock and jazz music. Private lessons went over basic instrumental technique for trumpet, guitar, voice, and piano; for most of my students this was their first opportunity to have regular lessons if any at all.

Very surprisingly, getting Israelis and Palestinians to agree to play and study music together was one of the easier tasks. Getting new musicians to spend quality time with their instruments in the summer for the first time in their lives was a much more daunting task. By focusing on the music they were already excited about, the vast majority of my students put in the time consistently and noticeably improved by the end of the lessons.

This wasn’t just new for my students; this was my first time teaching too, and I started with at least five lessons and one class a day, all in a foreign language to boot! My students and I fully jumped in to something completely unfamiliar, and, despite our struggles, I was very happy with my students’ progress by the end. Some got a lot better technically, others seemed to be more present when playing in the lessons, while others seemed to just be newly passionate about music itself. For my personal measurement of success, more important than improving technically was that they had a greater appreciation for music and the process of practicing in and of itself. The experience of giving it your all during the lessons, and then seeing real growth is an extraordinary feeling, and makes me further understand how rewarding teaching can be.

While I wouldn’t necessarily sign up to teach that many lessons and classes again anytime soon, those experiences have made me value teachers’ incredibly difficult job, and they have made me want to teach in some capacity again. Given the opportunity, I would love to go back after graduating and help make a program like this become a permanent reality.

Looking back on this project almost six months later, I’m incredibly thankful I had the chance to do this work for a full three months. In coming to Oberlin, I didn’t feel like I fit in at first, after transitioning from having a full time job in another country to starting my college education. I love the Oberlin bubble because it affords me a wealth of opportunities unparalleled by any other place I’ve been. Sometimes it feels limiting to be here when there is so much work only possible once outside of Oberlin, but ultimately, my year before starting college and the Yafo summer experience has made me appreciate my time as a student that much more. After working long hours, speaking a language that kept me thinking and struggling 24/7, and taking on the responsibilities one has when living on one’s own has made me appreciate the freedom to study and practice specifically what I want to be learning all day, every day as an unreal gift.