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The circus circle 'erases all other lines'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: August 11, 2008 - In a world where safety relies on the strength of a string or the bonds between aerialists' fingers, there is no room for distrust. That's why, when Roey Schafran tumbles with Mnar Asdi, these children born on different sides of a deep conflict simply become Israeli acrobats.

"To me, they're just Israeli circus kids," said Matthew Viverito, 18, a member of the youth troupe, the St. Louis Arches. He will study at Florida State University this fall. "In the beginning, I couldn't tell them apart."

And that is precisely the point of fusing an Israeli-Arab circus troupe with the St. Louis Arches, according to  Rabbi Marc Rosenstein, founder of the Galilee Foundation, the umbrella group of the Galilee Circus.

"As they work together, these kids aren't Arabs and Jews. They're Israelis in America. This is much different from what they're used to."

Schafran, age 10, and Asdi, who is 15, both live in Israel. Schafran hails from the Northern Israeli town of Karmiel, and Asdi lives in the Arab village of Deir Al Asad. Since schools in Israel are chiefly segregated, the two would normally not cross paths.

Jessica Hentoff, artistic director of St. Louis' only circus school, the Circus Day Foundation, founded the St. Louis Arches in 1989. Now, the American and Israeli troupes have combined for the second time to form the Galilee Arches. Last year, the melded group performed in Israel. Now, the Israelis are in the United States, and St. Louis can witness the transformative power of circus.

Hentoff juggles high-pressure performances at places such as the Muny with the goals of compassion and peace, or "harmony through handsprings." During practice, she stands on the red carpet of the City Museum's circus area, speaking of timing, pins and tightropes. During practice, a juggling girl wears a religious scarf on her head. Next, the children juggle up to seven bean bags. A small boy juggles pins the length of his torso.

Cultural differences seem to fade in the ring. "The circle of circus erases all other lines," Hentoff said. A tumble looks the same in every country. Religious beliefs do not change the skills necessary to master the trapeze. The laws of physics that govern the circus straddle oceans and enable people who share little culturally to trust each other.

Sari Cornfeld, an intern at the circus, appreciates the power of circus to connect people. "The relationship between Arabs and Israelis can be so stigmatized, and you can't imagine that they'd work together to form a pyramid!" Cornfeld said. "Watching it happen shatters preconceived notions. All we hear on the news is fighting in Israel, but we show that it's not always the case."

Though most adults in the program see the circus' purpose to be fundamentally educational, they know that the children come to learn circus. "We teach them circus. They develop focus persistence and framework," Hentoff said.

"They don't think about the peace, they think about the other children," Orli Shafran, Roey's mother, said in Hebrew. Shafran said that aside from connecting children, the circus connects Arab and Israeli parents, who have annual get-togethers.

Asdi recognizes the rareness of her attachments with children from Jewish villages. "We are friends. We stick forever. I thought that we would never be stuck but now we are," Asdi said in Hebrew. "We share our lives together. There is some difference between us but this makes our relationship stronger. The important thing is that we help each other."

On a more basic level, she knows she is most confident when flying -- on a trapeze or airplane. "On the trapeze I have self-confidence, I like it more than my life," Asdi said. "When I went on the airplane, for the first time, it was like a big trapeze."

Even when the Galilee troupe is in Israel, the Arches uphold the philosophy of "social circus," that acrobatics unite people. "For some of the kids, we are the most stable adults in their lives," Hentoff said.

Lemond CarMickle from North County is 15, and said he has been flipping since he was younger. "This is like the Olympics to me," CarMickle said. "When the Israelis came, it was fun. They're just like us."

On Wednesday, the Galilee Arches return to Israel. Viverito's journey with the Arches tapers as he travels to college, but the experience has not left him unchanged. "It's hard when you're with unfamiliar people from a different race, language, ethnicity and religion. Without trust, though, you can't put on a good show," Viverito said. Like the triples ummersault on the flying trapeze that Viverito hopes to master, "Trust is a trick you have to nail." 

Joy Resmovits, a rising junior is at Barnard College, is an intern with the Beacon. 

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