By Jessica Halfin

On a chilly winter morning in the seaside Israeli city of Akko, choral harmonies rose into the air and bounced off a vaulted stone ceiling.

The voices belonged to the 30 women of the Naama Women’s Choir and rang in two holidays that happened to fall on the same date: Christmas and Chanukah.

In the background, the traditional Islamic call to prayer could be heard from the mosque next door, blending perfectly with the choir’s “Ave Maria” in a true display of modern life in the Western Galilee, a region that is Sandy Springs’ sister city in Israel.is-jnf-1

The concert was held in the beautifully restored Jewish National Fund (JNF) Western Galilee Tourist Information Center, which promotes the region’s tourism and businesses. Once an abandoned structure, it now plays host to the awe-inspiring music at the annual Winter Festival.

In its fifth year, the festival from Dec. 22 to 24 was hosted by Western Galilee Now, a consortium of small businesses, wineries, tour operators, artisans and more, to usher in and celebrate the winter holidays while introducing the general public to the varied cultures living side by side in the Western Galilee.

Each year the festival takes visitors through a series of culinary and crafting workshops, concerts, tours, feasts and storytelling sessions.

One such guided tour took visitors through the cobblestone streets of Akko’s Old City. Passing through hotels thoughtfully constructed around the ruins of city walls and water cisterns, the tourists encountered the bubbling energy of young children at play.

Emerging from an elevator, the tourists were greeted by a breathtaking view of the ancient city from the roof of one of the Old City’s buildings.

Amnon Gofer and Ayelet Bar-Meir, two of Western Galilee Now’s tour guides, directed the visitors’ attention to the Mediterranean Sea, the land and the marks of the many great civilizations that have tried to conquer Akko. Reflecting the many invasions, this ancient port city can feel like modern-day Istanbul or a crusader-era European city.

“What makes Akko so special is not just the mix of people from all religions who live and coexist in this city,” Goffer said. “What’s exciting is that things are always growing and changing here. Both below and above the ground, there is always something new to discover. Wherever you look, there is something special to be found.”

The stops on the special holiday tour included an old Templar neighborhood, identified by its signature white-and-blue houses, and a Sufi Muslim shrine.

Under the yellow and blue stained glass at JNF’s Tourist Information Center, the choir serenaded the crowd with another melody, only this time not a Hebrew song or an English carol, but a solemn Arabic hymn. At the end of the hymn, visitors and tourists whispered well wishes and chag sameach (happy holiday) to one another.

The crowd remained to partake in the candle lighting for the first night of Chanukah, while Christians around the city prepared for their Christmas Eve dinner.

Pnina Inbar, the founder and conductor of the Naama Women’s Choir, told the crowd: “Our concerts always hold a special feeling, but this one was very moving for all of us. Just having the opportunity to sing in these renewed historical and spiritual spaces in Akko’s Old City, among the wonders and hustle of the city and with such a fantastic crowd, has made this year’s festival especially unique for all of us.”

Inbar’s moving words are what the Western Galilee is all about: people from different faiths and walks of life coming together to take part in one another’s holiday ceremonies and customs. In Akko, coexistence isn’t “happening”; it’s the norm.

To learn more about Jewish National Fund’s work, visit JNF.org. To plan a visit to the Western Galilee, visit Western Galilee Now at westgalil.org.il.