By Stacia Friedman
Bringing peace to the Middle East seems to slip through the hands of every U.S. administration. But later this month, when the Heartbeat Ensemble performs at Mishkan Shalom, Sharon Sigal, co-chair of the event, will feel she’s given the peace process a strong nudge.
A professional vocalist and voice teacher in Ardmore, Sigal first discovered Heartbeat four years ago when the group performed at Beth Am in Penn Valley. Comprised of teenage Israeli and Palestinian singer-songwriters, Heartbeat’s mission is to encourage mutual respect and understanding through music. Previously, these young ambassadors of peace performed for the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Congress and at over 30 American universities, including Harvard, Yale and Georgetown.
“I was mesmerized by their uniquely musical approach to conflict resolution, which was expressed in a wide array of genres from rap to classical music,” said Sigal. “It’s been my dream to bring Heartbeat to my congregation.” That dream, four years in the making, will come true on Saturday, April 29, 7 p.m., when The Heartbeat Ensemble performs at Mishkan Shalom’s annual Songs of Peace and Justice Concert, a multi-cultural, inter-faith, musical event. (If the name Mishkan Shalom rings a bell, it’s because the congregation formerly met at the United Methodist Church in Chestnut Hill.)
The timing is significant. Sigal could not have known when she first set the wheels in motion that Heartbeat’s performance would coincide with dramatic political polarization in the nation and a proposed Presidential ban on travel from predominantly Muslim nations. What better time for us to learn from young Israelis and Palestinians how to find unity and common purpose?
The musicians performing at the concert are graduates of the Heartbeat program, which has touched the lives of over 100 Israeli and Palestinian youths. They include: Manal Malshi, an Arab singer-songwriter from Haifa who joined Heartbeat at 16; Dana Herz, one of Israel’s leading jazz singers who is currently studying at the New School in NYC; Ami Yares, a folk musician and current Penn grad student; and Aaron Shneyer, Founder and Executive Director of Heartbeat.
When he launched Heartbeat in 2007, singer-songwriter Shneyer was a Georgetown University graduate and Fulbright Fellow. “This is a viable alternative to the narrative of polarization, hatred and divisiveness. We need to reframe that conversation,” said Shneyer. “Most Arabs and Jews live in separate neighborhoods and attend separate schools. We urgently need to provide safe, engaging spaces for youth from both sides to build critical awareness and to respect each other as equals.”
Heartbeat achieves these goals via weekly sessions and overnight retreats in which 14- to 24-year-old Palestinian and Israeli musicians explore each other’s cultures and narratives in safe, politically neutral settings. Besides developing skills in songwriting, performance technique and music theory, they engage in dialogue about their lives and the stigma they face as a result of their participation in the program. Occasionally, to advance the group’s dialogue and provide safe, meaningful opportunities for participants to deepen their understanding, Heartbeat staff members organize and lead field trips to places such as Hebron, Jaffa, the Old City and the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum to experience present and past realities firsthand from multiple perspectives.
Using music to form cross-cultural and interfaith bonds is integral to Rabbi Shawn Zevit of Mishkan Shalom, who established the annual Songs of Peace and Justice Concert three years ago. “I created the concert series to promote social justice and interfaith understanding among Philadelphia mosques, churches and synagogues,” said Zevit. “We support those working for non-violent change, freedom and justice in the Middle East and welcome this group of Israeli and Palestinian musicians who embody this quest with their voices and souls.”
“Heartbeat has created a space in which to hear one another, which is something we all need to work on,” said Sigal. “Everyone is welcome to attend.” Expect to hear jazz, reggae, folk and Middle-Eastern music sung in Hebrew, Arabic and English. Between songs, performers will share personal stories reflecting the harsh realities of life in Israel, as well as their aspirations for peaceful co-existence. And couldn’t we all use a little more of that?
“Just come and experience it without any preconceived notions,” Sigal said. “It will give you hope, not just for the Middle East but for all of us.”
For tickets and information visit www.mishkan.org or call 215-508-0226. Mishkan Shalom is located at 4101 Freeland Ave. in Roxborough. Stacia Friedman is a frequent contributor to the Local and the author of “Tender is the Brisket.” She also studied painting at Temple University, Woodmere Art Museum, Abington Art Center and Fleisher Art Memorial. Her watercolor paintings are currently on exhibition at Trattoria Moma in Mt. Airy through May, 2017.