Rhapsody in Blues

They come to this concert from all over the country, and even from their homes in Berlin, London or New York: young musicians and other performers. All have busy professional careers - singing, playing, conducting, dancing - some of them on the international stage. They will not be paid for this concert, but nevertheless, like every year, they not only answer the call but fight for the privilege of performing.

Among tonight's performers (Tel Aviv Museum of Art, 8:30 P.M.) are singer Limor Ilan, pianist Tal Samnon, clarinetist Hila Zamir and mandolinist Tom Cohen, as well as a choir and a dance troupe. They and many others will perform works by Clara Schumann and Robert Schumann, Brahms, Bizet and Gershwin; Israeli music by Yehezkel Braun, Sasha Argov, Moshe Wilensky and others.

Who are these young people, who not only perform in the concert but organize it, act as masters of ceremony and together contribute to its success? A close look reveals that most of them are students or graduates of the Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts in Givatayim. On closer examination it becomes clear that all have received scholarships from a foundation for young musicians whose name is familiar only in musical circles: the Ronen Foundation.

"When I lost my Ronen I had two options, to end my life, too, or to live it more fully, and with greater meaning," says Yaffa Israeli, the foundation's founder and director. "And immediately after he died I knew what my choice would be: to live, and to commemorate him, and to do so in the field of music."

Israeli's eldest son, Ronen, who ended his life in 1992, at the age of 24, was very devoted to music, with a large and rare collection of discs and a love of opera. "I was his partner in visits to the opera and he would play every work for me and explain it to me before we went," says Israeli, a banker.

"I wanted music to be the way of preserving his memory, but I didn't know exactly how. I decided to support children who are studying music. I'm not wealthy and therefore I began with one boy. Later I became friendly with Miri Zamir, the head of the music department at the Thelma Yellin school, and she put me in touch with children who needed such support. After the first boy came a girl, then another, then two more boys," Israeli explains.

Where does the money come from?

"At first, from my own pocket. Over time the circle expanded somewhat, I received help from the Givatayim Conservatory, which gave us rehearsal space, and I met more and more people who wanted to contribute."

The Ronen Foundation grew gradually, and eventually Israeli found that she had to formalize the institution. "I hesitated, because the foundation was my own private, intimate corner, which belonged to me and my son and his memory," she says. "And if all of Ronen's characteristics could be summed up in one word I would choose 'modesty.' There was nothing showy or public about him. Nevertheless I decided to sacrifice this intimacy because I understood that it was the only way to help more children, and with more money. So I founded a nonprofit association."

News of the Ronen Foundation spread by word of mouth. Companies such as Check Point and the Eliyahu and Phoenix insurance companies contributed generously, "and thanks to them we were able not only to increase the number of scholarships but also to carry out special projects, such as buying a violin for a needy, very talented boy - a violin that cost $15,000."

The scholarships are modest, from NIS 2,000 to NIS 5,000 each for about 20 students a year. In recent years donor streams have almost totally dried up. "The second intifada eliminated almost everything," says Israeli, "because the donors decided to send their money to other causes: Sderot, the needy elderly, and less to musicians. Therefore we also have other channels that other foundations don't have, such as being hosted abroad. I have many friends and acquaintances abroad, and as a result there is already a support network there. They host our students, opening their doors and their hearts, and also help in a more tangible way, for example by organizing concerts in the local Jewish community or using their ties with people and organizations in the music world."

The foundation, which is basically a one-woman enterprise, accompanies the children from the age of 15, at Thelma Yellin, into the academic world, in times of crisis and success, and above all with love. "I've fallen in love with these children," says Israeli, "and I'm always amazed at their talent, their maturity, their responsibility from such a young age. Their ability and their ambition to invest everything in art, without compromises, and to be in a world that is all beauty and intellect. We all know how rare that is among adolescents."

Some of the students aided by the Ronen Foundation come from far away to study at Thelma Yellin and must rent an apartment in Givatayim. Others cannot afford private lessons or instruments, or don't have a place to practice. "We have begun a project in the WIZO school in Haifa, where there are also tremendous talents who need help," says Israeli. "We established the Ronen Camp in Haifa, a music camp held every year at the end of the summer vacation, led by alumni of the foundation."

Also performing in tonight's concert are the Thelma Yellin choir, conducted by Yishai Steckler, and students from the school's dance department in works choreographed by department head David Dvir. Tickets are NIS 100 each. "It's a donation, we need it and it is tax-deductible," Israeli explains. "Some people pay even NIS 200 and NIS 300 per ticket."

Israeli contains within her a rare combination of profound sadness and great joy: "I cry, and at the same time I'm happy. These children are mine, too, and still there is always the thought of Ronen, of the loss to all of us because he lives only in our consciousness and not in reality.

But above all," she says, "for the children the foundation sets an example - that one must live, smile, build; that praise must be given as well as received; and that one must be involved. To see them working hard preparing for the concert, and to hear them talking about 'our concert' and 'our foundation' - that's my greatest joy."