As anyone who has ever attended summer camp can tell you, there are times when it can get to be like a circus.
That was never more true than on July 19, when 250 campers and counselors at the Kaiserman JCC Day Camp in Wynnewood were treated to a performance by the Galilee Circus, a youth circus made up of both Jews and Arabs from the Galilee region of Israel. The circus came to the camp as part of its United States tour organized by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. The troupe played to numerous Delaware Valley audiences before leaving for a residency in St. Louis.
The circus is the brainchild of Rabbi Marc J. Rosenstein, the former principal of Akiba Hebrew Academy (now the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr.) In the aftermath of the 2000 intifada, Rosenstein, the director of the Israeli Rabbinic Program of Hebrew Union College at the Institute of Religion in Jerusalem, knew that he had to do something to bridge the ever-widening gap between Jews and Arabs.
When asked why he chose the seemingly random vehicle of a circus, the 65-year-old Rosenstein says that he hit upon the idea because the circus is all about "overcoming fear, about trusting the other person implicitly. They don't have to speak the same language — or any language. It's people from other cultures working together, it makes people smile, and it's a sport that's non-competitive — there are no losers."
And judging by the appreciative clapping and cheers of the campers, Rosenstein is definitely on to something. The young audience delights in watching the performers, many of whom are just a few years older than they are, execute unicycle jumps, tandem juggling, group acrobatics, Chaplinesque mime and aerial silk gymnastics. Even the rare misstep, like a dropped juggling pin, is applauded as the young juggler shrugs off his mistake and goes on with the show,
One of those jugglers, 15-year-old Roi Shaffran, is the embodiment of the circus's mission. A seven-year veteran of the circus, he points to the two crucial things he has gotten out of his time there. "I used to be shy, and now I can stand and perform in front of a room full of people," he says. And he performs with his friends, some of whom are Arab. "All of my friends would ask me, 'why are you in the circus? There are Arabs in the circus! Jews and Arabs, they can't be together.' I never thought I would have Arab friends — until I found the circus."
Rosenstein says that Shaffran's experience is typical, and is one of the reasons that his troupe of 50 kids between the ages of 6 to 21 is almost two-thirds Arab. "Jews tend to be more afraid of Arabs, whom they don't know so well, than Arabs are of Jews, whom they, as a minority, know very well."
One has only to see the camaraderie expressed both onstage and off by his young charges to recognize that Rosenstein's plan is gaining steam. And while the nuances of the efforts and difficulties in bridging the gap between Jews and Arabs in Israel might not have reached the attendees, the essence of the project certainly reached campers like 8-year-old Dori Olson of Wynnewood, whose favorite part was "where there were a lot of people working together. I thought it was really cool how a lot of people could do something together."
For more information on the Galilee Circus, go to: eng.makom-bagalil.org.il/galileecircus/.