To get an idea of just how different Heartbeat is from a typical Israeli intercultural youth group, look no further than YouTube. There, you can see Israeli Jewish, Israeli Arab and Palestinian musicians performing their latest song, “Bukra fil mish-mish,” which is an Arab saying that means: “when pigs fly.”
While it does employ strands of traditional Israeli folk music, “Bukra fil mish-mish ” is a modern pop song, incorporating hip-hop and rap as well.
When Aaron Shneyer, the 29-year-old founder of Heartbeat, looked at the nonprofit organizations that promoted dialogue among Jewish, Arab and Palestinian youth through music, he was surprised to discover that there wasn’t a single group that did so using pop and modern music.
And so, in 2007, armed with funds from a Fulbright-MTVU grant, Shneyer began bringing together Jewish, Israeli Arab and Palestinian high school students to make modern music as a way of learning about each other and their respective cultures. The Hearbeat program, with branches in Jerusalem and Haifa, focuses on individual music instruction; practicing and performing together; and having structured and unstructured dialogues among the teenaged participants.
Six years later, his gamble has paid lasting dividends: collaborations that have resulted in songs like “Bukra fil mish-mish”; awards like the 2012 Europeans for Peace Award for Project of the Year (for their composition, “Hip H’Opera: Borderline Remix”); and a 15-date tour of the East Coast that is concluding with a performance at Congregation Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley on March 7.
Harold Messinger, the chazzan at Beth Am Israel, says that he jumped at the chance to book a group that would not only bring in a blend of Israeli folk, funk, hip-hop and Arabic rap, but would also be able to create an impact through their post-concert outreach.
“We’ve been looking to do programming that’s arts based but that would also allow us to do something different, something that would speak to our congregation and, hopefully, to the wider Jewish community,” Messinger says. “An Arab-Israeli group looking to foster relationships without a political agenda was very appealing to myself and to Rabbi David Ackerman,” the congregation’s spiritual leader.
Shneyer understands that people want to hear the three Jewish and three Palestinian musicians tell their stories just as much as hear their music, and he plans the concerts accordingly.
“We make sure that they get a chance to represent themselves and what they believe in,” he said during a phone interview conducted while the band was en route from a gig in Providence, R.I. to one in New York City. “By sharing their personal stories, the audience gets a window into the lives of these young people who have grown up in the conflict.”
There is also an interactive workshop component. Shneyer said that audience members can get a feel for what Heartbeat is about by teaching them “our three primary tools we use to reach the ‘zone’ ” for playing music together: “listening, respect and responsibility.” One way the group does this, he said, is through polyrhythmic exercises like clapping. “Separately, they sound horrible, but put together, they sound amazing! It demonstrates the power of coming together and listening, of getting into harmony.”
To hear 17-year-old rapper Muhammad “Moody” Kablawi, a resident of Haifa, tell it, the band members get just as much out of the interaction as the audience does.
“When I rap, I bring my experience, my life, my story — and the stories of other Palestinians who can’t express themselves. With Heartbeat, I can amplify my voice and think that there is hope for change,” he says.
“I’m getting more and more hopeful about the future from the audience reactions,” he adds, noting that his most memorable experience of the tour to date was on opening night, at the University of Vermont in Burlington.
“We had this woman from the audience — she said she had been waiting for us for so long, for us to bring the message,” he recalls. “It was so heavy for all of us — it touched all of us inside our hearts.”
Guy Gefen, at age 21, one of the oldest band members, echoes Kablawi’s sense of wonder at the reception the band has gotten since touching down on American soil. The guitarist/vocalist exclaims, “It’s amazing, very heartwarming and eye-opening. I am really surprised at the audiences and so much reaction from the media and Facebook. After every show, I have so many people coming up to me and telling me the hope they have.”
He knows, though, that there is a long way to go after the euphoria of the tour wears off. “There is still a lot of work to do, a lot of forces against what we are doing.”
Shneyer is hard at work on the next phase of Heartbeat’s growth. He plans to capitalize on the success of the tour by releasing a CD of their live performances, and he is in the process of finalizing plans to open new Heartbeat branches across Israel.
“We are at a turning point,” he says. “We’re really fired up to go home and do more.”
Heartbeat in concert: