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Thursday, June 21, 2018

back (From Left): Yaakov Sebrow, Gavriel Apfel, Chanan Freilich, Noam Charnowitz, Mark Weingarten, Jacob Braun, Moshe Apfel, Shoshana Somer, Devorah Schloss, Baila Kivelevitz, Daniella Penn, Rachael Siegel, Rebbecca Wilhelm

New York—For many, the summer months are associated with vacation, camp, or perhaps the beach. However, there are people unable to partake in these months of fun and excitement. Confined to their nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, or hospital beds, or as shut-ins, the sick and elderly’s only summer experience is the passing of the hot sun across their bedroom windows. This year a group of Yeshiva University undergraduates are determined to correct this situation.

Led by Mark Weingarten, a junior who is studying history and biology at Yeshiva College, undergraduates nationwide have united to improve the social wellbeing of ailing children, veterans and seniors. Founded in 2011, Music Vs. employs the universal language of music in an attempt to strengthen these diverse groups in their battles against a variety of medically related conditions. However, the organization does not merely coordinate concerts. Music is also used to alleviate the social discomfort commonly associated with meeting strangers. At a typical event, Music Vs. members will first play music, sing, or dance for their audiences. After establishing a warm atmosphere, the students start chatting with the elderly, the vets and children, listening to their stories and providing comforting encouragement in return.

While coordinating mass visits to hospitals or nursing homes is a major part of Music Vs.’ program, its agenda does not end there.  Music Vs. realizes that the impersonal atmosphere of a large event is not very conducive to creating relationships. In order to build upon the connections established in the initial encounters, smaller and more intimate weekly visits are scheduled for all residents who express an interest. As the relationships develop, music slowly becomes an ancillary rather than necessary component of the program, as conversations predominate. Befriending seniors, and veterans in particular, is Music Vs. way of showing appreciation for the services they have done for our country and for us, the younger generation.

The inspiration for Music Vs. came when Mark played music for patients at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital while studying in Israel. When he was a freshman at Yeshiva College, Mark started Music Vs. as a small club that quickly expanded, as Mark’s twin brother Michael joined the effort, followed by national directors Gavriel Apfel, Isaac Kleinman, Arieh Levi, and Tova Weingarten. During the past two semesters, chapters were formed by students at schools like Lander, Lehman, Queens, Stern, Yale and even Kerem B’ Yavneh in Israel. Events were held throughout the winter and spring, with many taking place around national and religious holidays.

Music Vs. success has continued, as Yeshiva University’s two branches now contain nearly 100 members. Yeshiva and Stern Colleges have run a series of events over the past few weeks, including a joint event at the local James J. Peters Veterans Hospital in honor of Memorial Day. Branches have also been established at CUNY, NYU, Penn, and most recently, Cornell. A number of other colleges are scheduled to form chapters this fall. Music Vs. is also looking to include high schools. Students from Shaar HaTorah in Kew Gardens ran their first event earlier this month, while Bruriah High School for Girls in Elizabeth N.J., and D.R.S Yeshiva High School for Boys intend to start the program next year.

Each chapter maintains their own unique style with which they engage the residents they visit. Yale’s group warms up their events by playing klezmer, while the Queens coterie just wants to rock. The Lander chapter prefers a couple of guitars and bongos, and Yeshiva’s members throw in an assortment of violins, flutes, and vocals. Yet no matter the method, the music enlivens the initially subdued and uncomfortable atmosphere generally present when meeting strangers, and paves the way for subsequent personal visits.

Music Vs.’ effectiveness is evident in the blossoming friendships between students from the Lander branch and Meyer, a Holocaust survivor and veteran of the Israeli War of Independence. This past Purim, Lander Music Vs. arranged a visit to the Boulevard ALP Assisted Living Center. They shared the festive character of the day with the residents by donning costumes and dancing their way through Center’s corridors. During their visit, the students met Meyer and his wife Zelma. After a few minutes of watching the group sing and dance, Zelma confided in them that her husband felt lonely at times and would really appreciate visitors. The students now visit Meyer nearly every week, listening to anecdotes from his inspiring life experiences.

Music Vs.’ success with Meyer reflects its greater mission to use the universal language of music to create a forum for intergenerational conversation that bridges cultural and racial barriers. Whether befriending a lonely widow or cheering up a sick child, Music Vs. believes that a healthier mind will lead to a healthier body. Through mobilizing college students nationwide, its members hope to ennoble the younger generation, and thereby rekindle people’s faith in themselves, and consequently, in their fellow human beings.

Visit musicvs.org and like us on Facebook at facebook.com/musicvs.initative.

By Bezalel Apfel