How 'Americans of Means' Are Grooming Israel's Young Musicians

Over 14,000 young Israeli musicians have been assisted by the America-Israel Cultural Foundation which is holding competitions this week.

The Tel Aviv Museum will be immersed this week in the annual spring competitions sponsored by the America-Israel Cultural Foundation. Held this year in three categories – piano, violin and metal wind instruments – these competitions serve not only as a springboard for young artists, but also signify the culmination of a years-long learning process, which begins in the musicians’ childhood years, when they first applied for a scholarship from the Foundation.

Being awarded a scholarship is no easy matter. The annual applicants are outstanding pupils who have gone through strenuous training. They start as children, and when they are older they participate in these spring competitions, continuing their development as professional musicians. Some of them subsequently continue in education, as teachers, instructors and judges at these competitions.

This musical cycle has been repeating itself for almost 60 years. The Foundation was established by Jewish philanthropist Edward Norman in 1939 and it has supported more than 14,000 young people so far. Not only classical musicians are eligible for the Foundation’s support. Singers such as Miki Gavrielov and Rita also benefited from its support, as did actors Yevgenia Dudina and Itay Tiran and artists Sigalit Landau and Ra’anan Alexandrowicz.

Lee Perlman, executive director of the Foundation since last year, became acquainted with it through his son’s music lessons. “Since then, I’ve met hundreds of people who work very hard, since these scholarships are opportunities to attain the highest levels of excellence as a musician,” he says. “The importance of the Foundation lies in the highest quality it strives to attain.”

Perlman previously managed the awards section of the Abraham Fund (Yozmot Keren Avraham,) a non-profit organization devoted to fostering co-existence between Arabs and Jews. He has just finished his Ph.D. in Israeli theater and is an adjunct researcher at Tel Aviv University in addition to his job as fund-raiser and director of the Foundation.

“I was always connected to people of means who love Israel, who are worried about what is happening here and who are willing to contribute. They are not necessarily leftists or liberals, but rather people who worry about the strength of Israel’s civic society and about providing equal social and educational opportunities. I try to demonstrate to them the role of Israeli culture in building a better society. Our interests lie more in fostering people than in granting scholarships. The Foundation functions like fuel, providing energy to institutions that create culture.”

One of the complaints that have been heard about the Foundation relates to its focus on outstanding musicians. “Fostering individuals sets the artistic criteria,” says Perlman in response. “Who sets these standards? It’s the exceptional musicians themselves who express their own artistic truth. However, we also support institutions of musical education, conservatories and music streams in schools. I’m concerned about the misunderstandings related to their funding by us.”

Israeli music conservatories serve as the backbone of musical education for pupils in Israel’s primary and high schools. They are currently under strain due to prevailing economic conditions, which has required parents to contribute between 40 percent and 70 percent of the tuition fees in recent years. “Those who are currently in charge of cultural policies don’t understand the vital importance of art education. Anyone studying an art subject develops discipline, contributing to himself and to society. It’s the same with science and sports education. It’s no coincidence that the education of athletes in Israel is constantly in crisis mode. Music, like sport, is not just for fun. It’s a critical element in the building of a more developed society.”

Can anything be done?

“First of all, culture has to be recognized as an asset, not as a luxury. One has to get the shapers of public opinion and policy-makers to understand that musical education is not just for a few fanatics, and that it requires optimal conditions in order to do well. In the United States, where I grew up, there was not one school year in which there were no music lessons. Practically, attention must first of all be given to the music conservatories. Arrangements must be made to ensure their proper status within the educational system.”

“The Foundation’s vision is to enable any young person to fulfill his or her potential, but we are failing in our mission”, says Perlman. “This is because we can only help a few hundred musicians. We’re very proud of these few, and we realize that in Israel there are many other branches of art that do not have the means to fulfill their potential.”

Daniel Bar-On