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Joining Hearts in Arts:
The Raz Ram Foundation

By Andrea Uebelhack
Translation by Mariska Haefelfinger

In the middle of a mixture of different languages which one only finds in Israel (to be found only in Israel?), I stand amazed and try to take pictures of a few of the giggling girls. The room is buzzing with Hebrew, Arabic, Russian and English, approximately 30 women and girls sit, ran, laugh with each other, kneading, moulding, crafting. I am in Mrar, a Druse-Arab village in the Northern part of Israel, a visitor to a project of the Raz Ram foundation.

Amongst all the women only one man, Aviv, with whom I started out to this trip to the Galil and who is responsible for this beautiful chaos. He brought to life the Raz Ram foundation and is both heart and soul of the project. Aviv is a musician; I met him two years ago in Prague where he performed together with his brother Arik in concert. In Prague, I also heard about the foundation, which at that time was already in existence for a year. Raz Ram devotes itself to orphans all over Israel, orphans from various parts of society, Jews, Palestinians, Druses and Bedouins. Aviv and Arik are half-orphans themselves. Their father, who was a pilot, died during the 6-day-war. At the time, Aviv was 3 years old, Arik was born just a month later. For Aviv, the drive to care for children from broken homes arose out of his own experiences.

The day began early for us, we started from Tel Aviv. On the drive up north we had time to speak about the foundation in general. The projects in the north of the country are only part of Raz Ram’s activities. Further projects are in Jerusalem, Rahat, Kirijat Gat, Rehovot, Nes Ziona, Tel Aviv and Jaffa. Artists from different backgrounds are involved in the various projects, but also students from Tel Aviv University, museums and other public institutions.

But then why is art the appropriate form of dialogue for projects with orphaned children, how can a healing process be initiated by activities with theatre, music, plastic art? Aviv answers with a counter question: "Do you know the word "chalal" in Hebrew?? "chalal" has various meanings, it is the description for a dead person, but also the Hebrew word for "space", "outer space", but at the same time "space" as in a hole or cavity, void. "Chalal" is not only the deceased, but also the hollow space, that he leaves behind. A void in the hearts of the children, but also in the family, the community, the country. "This void can never be filled", Aviv adds. "It will be the source for agony and pain in the life of the child, but I think that via a transformation it can also become a source of energy for creative activity".

In Mrar mothers are integrated in the project for the first time. Originally, this wasn’t the plan, but during preliminary discussions it became clear that the mothers would like to participate as well. Aviv, who likes to keep his approach flexible, agreed immediately. A wise decision; in that way a special encounter was made possible. The activities in Mrar take place at the local youth centre and are being looked after by Nada. Nada is the heart and soul of the centre. A widow herself, she devotes her energy to community work and to the work with the local women. No other youth- and community centre in the Arab sector offers that many activities, presentations, special courses and support for women as does the one here in Mrar. For the women, most of them widows, the centre is the only possibility for encounters outside the family.

Mila helps the younger girls...

And so it happens that in Mrar some 30 Druse and Arab (Muslim and Christian) women and children get together once a week. Nada told me that they always turn up early and can hardly wait until Mila gets there, too. Mila is the artist who has been entrusted by Raz Ram with the supervision of the project. She is Russian and came to Israel 10 years ago. Shortly afterwards her daughter fell victim to an attack in a bus in Tel Aviv. Mila is a potter and shows the girls and women various techniques. Plates, cups, Chamsoth or bells, eagerly they all work with clay, colours and pearls.

At first Nada was afraid that there might be problems with communication. Mila does not speak Hebrew particularly well, her husband Vladimir translates a lot from Russian, the local girls only speak Arabic, and only some mothers speak Hebrew as well. Surprisingly though, the exact opposite happened, the group gets on remarkably well with Mila, the language and the different cultures seemingly being an encouragement rather than a hindrance. Many other women have already inquired whether the project will be carried on, and would like to participate as well.

Aviv definitely would like to continue the activities in Mrar. This particular project though should come to it’s special conclusion. Aviv suggested to find one particular tree in the village and to decorate it with ceramic bells of the group and which should then serve as "the tree of life". In Mrar such an idea is even more symbolic than one might think at fist sight. The women were widowed not only because the men died in the army, in Mrar there was also an exceptional amount of car accidents. In addition 10 young men of the village killed themselves within a relatively short period of time and hung themselves on the trees of the village; Nada tells us. This is why from the beginning she was convinced of the idea to have a "tree of life" with the bells of the orphans and widows.

Unfortunately time just flew, and already we have to be on our way to the next stop. Aviv and Nada fix a time to go looking for a suitable tree. After a warm farewell we leave and drive on to Rama, about 20 minutes by car from Mrar. In Rama, Aviv tells me that it has taken a long time to get a project on the way. Now the activities take place in an orphanage, the "House of Love and Peace", which has been run by George and his wife, a Christian couple, for about ten years now. By now some 40 children of all ages live there, orphans, but also children from difficult family backgrounds, who would otherwise life in poverty and violence, or would simply just live on the streets.

This is where Ahmed works with a group of 15 children. Ahmed originally comes from Nazareth and studied drama and performing arts in France. Working with the children is not only a big challenge, but also a completely new experience for him. For the children themselves the whole thing is a unique and challenging experience. A year ago they were guests at a reception of the Raz Ram foundation, held by state president Moshe Katzav. This is also were they saw a play which impressed them deeply. "Next time we’ll be the ones standing on stage" one of the boys then decided. Aviv had been looking for the right person to coach them for a long time, until he finally fell upon Ahmed. Ahmed has now been working with the kids for 4 months and is impressed by their willpower and talent.

And they don’t even really know what that is, theatre. They only saw a short theatre piece once, a year ago, they don’t really know what a stage is, and they are also afraid to be on stage themselves, cannot really imagine that this will really come true. Aviv asked them whether they would like to organize a proper performance with their play they are working on with Ahmed; here in Rama and maybe also in other places. Sure, absolutely, was their answer. Ahead of them lies a proper piece of work, Ahmed says, but they could make it come true.

Ahmed works with little text and a lot of pantomime. For the children he put together a play, featuring freedom as a main subject, a dictator who suppresses people and has them work for him, who will finally be defeated, only to then be replaced. Freedom for everybody, Ahmed emphasizes; it is not a political play, each of the children represent a different nation, Israel, Palestine, America, Russia, France and Japan. The pantomime is very demanding on the children, because they have to bring their imaginations into the play.

The whole project demands a lot of the children and consequently brings them moments of happiness and confirmation. Ahmed told me about a little boy who started crying when the group applauded him for a well-done scene. An hour later he came up to Ahmed and told him that for the first time in his life he had actually been praised for something. His teacher at school had never actually praised him for anything, so far. Ahmed, that becomes quite clear, is not the "teacher", the "adult" who gives instructions; he is a friend and knows how to deal with children. All the same he does set them boundaries, so that they realize that the project is for real and is to be taken seriously.

Ahmed suggests to let the children attend a performance in Haifa next week, in order for them to get an impression of what theatre is about, what a real stage is and to be able to get an idea of the atmosphere of the theatre. Maybe even a meeting with the actors could be arranged. After various technical matters have been discussed, we have to leave Rama, as well. Our day is not yet finished.

Hurfeish, a Druse village and the last stop on our trip, so to speak represents the centre of all projects of the Raz Ram foundation in Northern Israel. There the connection between the centre and the memory of the dead, Jad leBanim, already exists. The project there is finished, some 30 children have made string puppets, painted them and dressed them. Today they have gathered to ceremoniously receive the string puppets. It becomes quite visible how proud the children are of their work, but also that they are not used to having their pictures taken and being appraised. The bigger boys play, just like the smaller girls, with their marionettes, only they turn their heads away bashfully when I turn my camera on them.

Proud of her work...

He hopes that I did not see him playing with the puppet...

The conclusion of this project does not mean in any way the end of the activities of the foundation in Hurfeish. Quite on the contrary, the foundation stone for the next initiative is in the truest sense of the word already laid out. Here in Hurfeish, Raz Ram plans the laying out of a small garden, the "Gan haMa'ajan", garden of the well. Whilst looking for possibilities for an open air project, Aviv came across the old fountain near the village. The Druses from the neighbourhood used to get their water from there before there were water pipes. Today the place is derelict and has become almost forgotten.

The idea to revive the place and work on it together was greeted with much enthusiasm in Hurfeish. At an afternoon organized by Raz Ram almost 300 children from the area drafted their ideas for a" well-garden". Of course the ultimate design cannot be left to the children entirely, but a solution to this has been found, too. 2 years ago, Aviv tells me, a young woman, an orphan herself, had contacted him to ask him about possibilities to be of value to the organisation. For a long time there was nothing suitable to be found until the idea with the garden came up. The young woman happens to be a landscape architect, a lecturer at the Technical University of Haifa, and she is thrilled with the project. The realisation itself will certainly take some time, but the course has been set, the project is on its way.

The closure will be a conference with the title "haGalil, culture of remembrance and peace", which is intended to promote an international commitment of the projects of the foundation. Cooperation and support, idealistically and financially, are essential for the work of Raz Ram, the project being quite unique in Israel. Even though there is some sort of support from the various ministries of the government, the financing of the projects in these difficult times of budget cuts and economisations is not an easy task. Sometimes the financing is a bit vague, but the foundation continues to run the projects, old and new. How could one disappoint the children, who have been looking forward all summer to the next meeting, by cancelling the project? And sometimes even one donation is enough to be able to renew a project.

On the way back to Tel Aviv, I try to sort out the different impressions of the day. Particularly astonishing I find the way the foundation manages to work its way round the bureaucracy, the long waits and difficult conditions of participation. At this foundation no elaborate plans are being worked out meticulously over months, no, here things just get done. And this "just getting things done", brings together and joins. "Joining Hearts in Arts" is the motto of the foundation, which is being lived every single moment. Above all I will remember the laughter and the joy of the children, who are given something truly special in the countless projects. For one afternoon they immerse into another world, create, work, fantasize and grow from it.

Raz Ram Foundation
Tel/Fax: +972-3-5467246
Email: a-l@bezeqint.net

Text in German

hagalil.com 28-02-2003

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