The visit was organized by an eight-member interfaith committee formed after several local clergy members returned from a trip to Israel in March. The trip was organized by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. In Israel, the clergy sat in on a performance of the youth circus.
"We were impressed," said the Rev. Charles Flood, rector of St. Stephen's and chairman of the organizing committee.
The circus, whose founding was inspired by the violence of the second Palestinian intifada, seeks to foster understanding among youngsters separated by religion, culture, geography, and politics. They must trust one another while performing stunts in which bodies that fly through the air must be caught by a fellow performer. It is a project of the Galilee Foundation for Value Education, whose mission is intergroup understanding.
They also take that message of trust and acceptance to members of the audience via the troupe's effort to entertain, said Rosenstein, a former principal at Barrack Hebrew Academy in Merion (formerly Akiba Hebrew Academy).
The performers all live in the mountainous Galilee region, in the northern section of Israel, which is home to a multicultural population. They practice four times a week at a facility in an Arab village. The group is one-third Jewish and two-thirds Arab.
Arab youngsters have been easier to recruit because Jewish families are more reluctant and fearful, Rosenstein said.
The rabbi discovers his budding performers by visiting schools and talking to gym teachers, and many youths are inspired to join after being a part of the audience at a show.
They are taught by a diverse staff that schools students in acrobatics, trapeze, unicycle, and tightrope.
"It was weird at the beginning, to be so together with Arabs. It didn't feel normal," said Einat Opalin, 17, who specializes in performing aerial stunts while wrapped in strips of silk. "But I changed my mind. I saw that a person is still a person."
Opalin and fellow performer Roi Shaffran, 15, live in Karmiel, a Jewish city near Deir al-Asad, an Arab town where fellow performer Hala Assadi lives with her family.
"I've learned to trust them and believe in my friends, and not be shy," said Assadi, 14, known for her contortionist-like flexibility.
Many of the troupe members' friends outside the circus question or deride their association with people who don't share their background.
"I don't care," Assadi said. "I know I'm doing the right thing."
Shaffran has learned not to talk about the circus with friends because of what he describes as their negative point of view.
"I used to say things to them, but I found that if you talk to friends about politics and religion, nothing comes out of it," he said.
The group performs at schools, malls, and festivals. Its $100,000 annual budget comes from performance revenue, donations, and other fund-raising efforts.
Opposition has not been overt, but "we know it's out there," said Rosenstein, who is also director of the Israeli Rabbinic Program of Hebrew Union College at the Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem.
Twelve youngsters (six Jewish, six Arab) came to the United States for this summer's tour, which will continue in St. Louis.
On Tuesday, at a performance at the American Gymnastics & Cheer sports center in Montgomery Township, 9-year-old Asmaa Wyatt sat rapt as she watched the exhibition of tumbling, juggling, and unicycling.
Asmaa, who lives in Saudi Arabia and is Muslim, was visiting her grandmother Madeline Valentine in Mount Airy.
"It's amazing. It was awesome," she said of the stunts, which she later said also applied to Israeli-Arab cooperation. She takes gymnastics classes when she visits her grandmother, but can't at home because "they don't have things for girls."
Brothers Evan and Sam Klein also watched from the audience. They recently returned from Israel, where they visited family and toured Galilee.
Sam, 10, complimented the performers, "especially since they are so young."
Both brothers said they got the troupe's message about the spirit of cooperation.
"I think they're trying to say it doesn't matter where you're from," said Evan Klein, 13, "you can still be good together and don't have to fight."
The Arab and Jewish teens of the Galilee Youth Circus perform their routines at www.philly.com/galilee
Contact Kristin E. Holmes at 610-313-8211 or firstname.lastname@example.org.