I didn’t notice her at first. She was merely a part of the sea of people milling about the reception hall. Then she stepped forward and, struggling for the right English words, pointed to her heart and said, “When you sing, you have a love.”
I looked into her red, tear-swollen eyes and smiled the warmest “Thank you” I could muster. I couldn’t speak. My heart was in my throat.
Looking around the hall, I could see that the other members of the BYU A Cappella Choir were having similar experiences. We were at Kibbutz Chatzerim in the middle of Israel’s Negev Desert. The love of the gospel of Jesus Christ expressed through song had bridged the gap of culture, language, and religion to touch the hearts of these people. It was our first concert in Israel and the beginning of a tour that, through music, would take the message of the Restoration to thousands of Jewish people.
It was only fitting that we should start in the Negev Desert, for it is in this parched and desolate region that the saga of the house of Israel began. This is the land that the Lord gave Abraham for his inheritance. It is the Wilderness of Zin where Moses and the Children of Israel wandered for 40 years to learn obedience to God. Today it is part of the area where the tribe of Judah is returning to build its homeland. Strangely enough, we were coming home too. Home?
How could anyone think this bleached, death-bone desert was home? The landscape is more reminiscent of a bleak and barren planet in another galaxy. But home it is. We are also of the house of Israel, and the realization of this common heritage made our tour seem like one great big family reunion. There were no strangers, only cousins we hadn’t met yet. It wasn’t long until we were engulfed in an overwhelming sense of love for Israel and her people.
This love penetrated deeper into our hearts as we struggled in the burning sun to scale a steep, desert pathway. Looming above us were the skeletal ruins of the winter palace and fortress of Herod the Great—Masada. This small plateau overlooking the Dead Sea is one of the most sacred and inspiring areas of the Negev. When the Roman armies marched on the Jews, a party of Jewish patriots captured the Roman garrison at Masada and resisted Roman conquest for three years after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. In this place centuries ago, 937 men, women and children chose death rather than captivity. Today it is an inspiration to Jewish nationalism. New recruits in the Israeli Army are brought to the top of Masada to take their oaths of service.
The memory of similar persecutions and dedication to principle in the lives of our pioneer forefathers strengthened the bonds we felt with the Jewish people. Alone, we half bowed, half kneeled, among the crumbling limestone columns of the northern palace and sang the “Hatikvah,” the Israeli national anthem. Like a careless beggar, the wind grabbed at our voices and scattered them over the edge to be lost in the wasteland below.
From our vantage point we envisioned how, for centuries, the Jews wandered, waiting for a time to build their own homeland, and how they still wander unknowingly in search of truth.
Turning northward, the power and magnitude of the mighty Negev Desert is quickly worn down to the calm, lush fields and orchards of the Jordan River Valley. In Israel, where there is water, there is life. No one knows that better than those who live on the kibbutzim (cooperative communities for farming and industry).
Struggling to survive in such a harsh climate, these people have learned to respect the land through hard work and industry. They are very emotional people and their appreciation for life is shown in their great love of music, art, and festivity. The majority of our concerts were on these kibbutzim, and we were received with great warmth and enthusiasm. We sang classical pieces ranging from Bach’s 97-page “Singet Dem Herrn,” to selections from Robert Cundick’s contemporary oratorio, “The Redeemer.” Especially popular were some Negro spirituals and Hebrew folksongs. Some members of the choir had expressed concern that the Jewish people would not like “Christian” songs. However, these fears were swiftly removed as we grew to understand the sincere appreciation the Israelis have for the arts, whether they be of Christian, Jewish, or any other origin.
If any of us thought we were the only “cultured” thing to hit Israel, we had another think coming. In an exchange with the Kibbutz Chamber Orchestra, we heard two pieces by Mozart, played as expertly as any orchestra we have come in contact with. These musicians are unusual in that they play not for money but for the sake of playing.
We also had an exchange with the Kibbutz Choir—40 vibrant singers whose sharp, crisp consonants danced in rhythm with their fervent enthusiasm. Their swaying shoulders and fiery eyes made them just as inspiring to watch as they were to hear. Though mostly farmers and small industry workers, both the members of the choir and the orchestra are exceptional artists.
The exchange was so successful and friendships became so strong that our conductor, Dr. Ralph Woodward, was invited to return next summer to conduct workshops with the music educators and musicians throughout Israel.
As hosts, the Israeli people are marvelous. After every concert we were given a reception so we could meet the people. There were apples, apricots, bananas, cake, milk, peanuts, and pretzels. We sang songs with them and learned many of their dances. It was at this time of friendship and association that the spirit of missionary work would really take hold. One evening I was talking with a man and his wife on a kibbutz when all of a sudden she said, “Now, tell us about the Mormons.”
I was a little taken back.
I’m a returned missionary and I thought, “What ever happened to the old, ‘What do you know about the Mormon Church, and would you like to know more’ bit?” This was like walking into a room full of golden investigators.
At first there were only the man and his wife, but in a few minutes about seven people were listening. I talked about Joseph Smith, the plan of salvation, the Book of Mormon, genealogy, the tribes of Israel and our connection through Joseph. I soon found that explaining the gospel to a Jew is a most challenging and rewarding experience. I had to search the very limits of my testimony to help them understand not only what the gospel is but why I believe it.
I was not alone. Charles Cranney and Marsha Paulson had an experience that was representative of many that occurred on the tour. Following a concert, two Israeli youth walked up to them and said, “You’re so peaceful and happy. You’re Mormons, aren’t you? What is it that makes you this way?” In the discussion that followed they were both given copies of the Book of Mormon. Reflecting on the experience, Marsha told Charles, “You know, that’s exactly what I saw before I joined the Church.” Charles summed up his experiences in Israel by saying, “The people came like children who were hungry.”
Dr. Woodward has often told the choir that the impact of the music we sing is multiplied by our physical appearance. For someone who has not had the gospel in his life to see 63 happy and clean young people, dressed in white evening dresses and black tuxedos, singing with the Spirit of the Lord, is an experience he can never forget.
Paula Bunting put it best when she addressed the choir one morning: “We’ve had a lot of fun bartering to try to get the best prices for the souvenirs we buy, but all of a sudden it has helped me realize even more the priceless blessing we have of knowing Jesus is the Christ and that he lives.
“You’ve helped confirm in my mind what the idea of purity is. When we’re singing and I look at some of you and see tears streaming down your faces, I wonder what kind of spiritual experience you’re having.”
The spiritual conviction and testimonies of the choir members are communicated impressively to those who are listening. One Israeli businessman emphatically stated, “I tell you frankly, there is something about this group. Not so much you are good singers, but you reach out to the hearts. It is very good. Very good.” He also received a copy of the Book of Mormon.
It was a testimony in itself to see the great love that developed between the choir and the Jewish people as they discussed the truths of the restored gospel. Testimonies were very strong and the power of conviction was everywhere present. It was interesting to note that the group included 33 returned missionaries.
One of the most unusual and exciting experiences of our tour was our visit with the president of Achzivland. Achzivland was a Phoenecian seaport 3,000 years ago, and many expeditions throughout the Mediterranean Sea area were made from here. Eli Avivi, the president, came to Achzivland 27 years ago when it was but a mound of ruins. He built a museum of all the many artifacts he discovered, and in 1972, he pulled away from Israel and formed his own country.
Achzivland isn’t much bigger than a football field, and President Avivi’s citizens include only himself, his wife, and a few others, but he stamped our passports and made it clear that he was autonomous and that as president he could do anything he chose to. He told us he could even marry us all together if we wanted. He was a fascinating character, and we sang a song for him. He liked it so much, he went and got his wife. We sang for her, after which President Avivi said, “You know, when before I said I would marry you all together, I see now I don’t have to. When you sing, you are one.” That was one of the greatest compliments the choir has ever received.
The Lord directs our lives so that we can achieve our fullest potential. In the midst of these great experiences and spiritual growth, we received a very good lesson in humility.
That night we had another concert, and Dr. Woodward looked a little tired. As we began the first number, perspiration began to bead on his brow, then roll down the sides of his face. He kept directing but his hands soon started to waver and the lines in his face grew taut. The entire choir was straining, ready at any moment to leap forward and catch him if he fell.
Finally, Sister Woodward got him to sit down and drink some water and Gordon Johnston, our assistant conductor, directed the next number. Then Dr. Woodward got up again and directed two more numbers before intermission when they carried him out. (Dr. Woodward later joked, “It was a funny feeling. I couldn’t really hear, but all I could think of was, the show must go on!”)
Many prayers were offered during that intermission, and then we returned to finish the concert. After the reception, as we were going to our rooms, we saw an ambulance take Dr. Woodward to the hospital, where he would remain for the next two days. Here, at the end of our tour, as we were on the eve of entering Jerusalem, our conductor and spiritual guide was gone from us. The challenge was now to go forward and apply all the principles we had been taught, to continue our mission to sing to the Jewish people and help them feel the spirit of the gospel.
In this special spirit of humility, we met with the seminary and institute groups touring Israel and held sacrament meeting with them on the Mount of Olives. What a great opportunity to sing on the mount where Christ used to go so often.
One choir member remarked, “Another choir once sang together not far from here on the Field of the Shepherds. I feel as if we are returning, that centuries ago we were part of the heavenly host that sang ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will towards men.’”
Reflecting on this and experiences of the past few weeks that were culminating at this spot held sacred by millions of people, we felt we were fulfilling in part a prophecy spoken long ago by the prophet Isaiah:
“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace; that bringeth good tidings of good, that publisheth salvation; that saith unto Zion, Thy God reigneth!
“Thy watchmen shall lift up the voice; with the voice together shall they sing: for they shall see eye to eye, when the Lord shall bring again Zion.
“Break forth into joy, sing together, ye waste places of Jerusalem: for the Lord hath comforted his people, he hath redeemed Jerusalem.” (Isa. 52:7–9.)
The impact of such an experience was beautifully expressed by Becky Toomey: “We have developed a great love for everyone. God created families and friends. If we didn’t need each other, we would have been put on planets by ourselves. He put order in our lives; he reserved us for this day that we could lift people, to help them take notice and open their eyes to understanding.”
As one Jewish woman said, “I have no words to express how I feel about the choir. It is like a preview into heaven.”
Many of these experiences would not have been as powerful had it not been for the background and history of the people and places provided by our guides, Yosie and Dov. They stayed with us wherever we went, and after three weeks our impact on them seemed to be equally as important. Yosie said, “When you sing, I am at peace.”
Dov became our translator in concerts, and at first, he only repeated what Dr. Woodward said. However, by the end of our tour, he was taking almost 20 minutes telling our audiences about the Mormons. He explained that we don’t drink coffee, tea, or alcohol. He talked about Joseph Smith and the gospel. He was bearing testimony without knowing it! His last words to us were, “I am a Jew and will always be Jewish, but there is a light about you that I don’t quite understand.” As he reads and studies the Book of Mormon, we pray he will come to understand more about that light.
On the eve of our departure, Ivan J. Barrett, president of the Jerusalem district, helped us see our tour in perspective: “Music and singing are designed to cheer the hearts of gods and angels in heaven. With your sweet voices, you have planted the seeds of the gospel in the hearts of these people.
“The other day a lady walked up to me and said, ‘Where are the beautiful young people who sang to us around the pool that night? They made such an impression on us, I want to have them come by and bring some literature.’” What better confirmation could we have that seeds were beginning to grow?
As we boarded the plane to leave Israel, we experienced a sense of confusion. It was as if we were leaving home to go home. It just didn’t make sense. In three short weeks we had grown to love this land and the people in it.
As Israel faded into memory, we struggled to keep the precious moments alive, but our tour was not over. Many rich experiences still awaited us in italy, where we were to spend three days waiting for our charter flight to the States.
With a day in Rome we wanted to devour all of the great works of art that we could possibly see. We began at Vatican City. So much beauty is in that place, it was impossible to digest it all. As we left the Sistine Chapel, our guide asked us if we had noticed the floor. Only a few had done so. The awesome beauty of Michelangelo’s artwork on the ceiling was so tremendous that many of us never looked down.
Then a once in a lifetime experience. We walked into St. Peter’s Basilica and sang. It is the first time any BYU choir has done so.
Tour groups walking through stopped; even their guides, who are usually caught up in the tape recorder-style recitation of facts and history, stopped and listened. In this cathedral, the very center of the Catholic church, the message of the restored gospel was sung to many people. What an experience to sing in such a building!
Our final concert was held in the beautiful city of Florence at the Duomo, the third largest cathedral in the world. But this cathedral is different. The beauty is on the outside, where the entire surface is tiled with different colored marble. Inside it is very plain, and we were told it was done this way so that people would not be distracted when they were worshipping.
One priest was so moved by the concert we gave there that he asked us to sing for the mass which followed. It was thrilling to sing to our brothers and sisters as they worshipped the Lord in their manner.
We poured all of our love we had learned in Israel into the songs we sang. Singing from behind the congregation, we created a spirit not felt by these people before. The mass ended, and we sang, “Come, Come, Ye Saints!” Never before have I heard it sung with more power and conviction. The spirit created was indescribable.
One small, frail woman worked her way, cane in hand, through the crowd and in broken English synthesized the feelings of our entire tour: “You sing. You love.”