Aaron Shneyer almost fell out of his chair the day he first learned about a Fulbright-mtvU fellowship that would allow him to study the power of music to bring people together.
“When I learned I got it, I practically fell out of my chair again,” he said, recalling the day in 2007 when he received the news. The one-year grant from the partnership between Fulbright and the digital cable TV network jumpstarted his goal: to create an ensemble of 12 Israeli and Palestinian musicians.
“I grew up dreaming of ways to use music to repair the world, and my own music has always focused on social justice and peace issues,” he said.
Shneyer, 32, is the founder and executive director of Heartbeat, a music-based, conflict-transformation program for Israeli and Palestinian youth. Along with two members of the group he will take part in a concert and conversation featuring original music on Sunday, March 20 at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley, which is in Kensington.
Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont decided to co-sponsor the event because Heartbeat’s commitment to “build a future where all people enjoy equal rights … matches Kehilla’s values,” said Kehilla executive director Michael Saxe-Taller. “We understand the power of using cultural arts to achieve social change,” he added, noting that “Heartbeat’s youth musicians use their music to build bridges between Palestinians and Israelis.”
Dana Herz, 24, and Rasha Nahas, 19, both musicians and singers, will join Shneyer on stage during a two-week tour that includes performances in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New York, Roanoke and Toronto. Shneyer described Herz, an Israeli, as “an amazing talent,” and said Nahas, a Palestinian, “writes deeply thoughtful lyrics and creative melodies.” (Hear the women perform at youtube.com/watch?v=ngRQpP8vRU4).
When Shneyer started on this path — with help and encouragement from Len and Libby Traubman of the San Mateo Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue group, whom he met in Boston in 2002 — he knew his life was changing dramatically and that his new direction would be intense. That has been the case.
Shneyer, who recently returned to the States after living in Jerusalem since 2006, said the songs composed by Heartbeat musicians are personal. “At times, the songs reflect on conflicts and struggles that the musicians face in their lives at home.
“Heartbeat is not a typical Israeli-Palestinian peace band where we love each other and everything is great,” added Shneyer, who is Jewish. “It’s more nuanced. We do love each other, but our music also grapples with challenging realities and expresses hope.”
The conversation at each concert between the performers and the audience is purposeful, he said. “Music holds the potential to convey such a deep, meaningful and uplifting experience — there is a lot to talk about. We’ve found it’s helpful to make sure the musicians explain their stories and then leave space for audience members to ask questions.”
For the most part, the reception is positive, he said. “The vast majority of our audiences walk away feeling uplifted, encouraged by prospects of hope for the future and also encouraged to believe even more strongly in working for social change in their own lives through grassroots efforts. We can’t wait for our leaders.”
Sometimes, he said, a few audience members do get upset when they hear things in songs that they disagree with. “It’s almost impossible to avoid, but I believe we strive to present different perspectives in a deeply respectful and compassionate way, and not to vilify anyone.”
Heartbeat has toured the United States before, and this summer, the group will perform in Europe for the first time. Reactions to past U.S. tours have been raves. A Voice of America review said that Heartbeat is “living proof that peace and harmony between Israelis and Palestinians is possible.” A reviewer in the Washington Post wrote that the group is “trying to turn the dissonance of violence into music of peace” and the Huffington Post noted that Heartbeat is “positively empowering the next generation of Israeli and Palestinian leaders.”
With programs in Jerusalem and Haifa, Heartbeat’s core programs draw musicians ranging in age from 14 to 24. Since its founding, more than 100 young Israeli and Palestinian musicians have taken part in Heartbeat, attending weekly meetings and occasional overnight retreats, where members explore each other’s cultures and hear each other’s stories.
“Now more youth musicians need to be part of our work,” said Shneyer, who received a Social Enterprise fellowship from American University’s School of International Service while working with Heartbeat. “We are making lasting change, built from the ground up, and we need to raise funds to open more chapters and to establish a new studio space in Haifa.” To that end, Heartbeat has launched a gofundme project to raise $70,000.
Heartbeat, in concert and conversation, 1 p.m. Sunday, March 20 at Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley, 1 Lawson Place, Kensington. Free, with a suggested donation. RSVP or donate: http://live.heartbeat.fm/uucb