Arab and Jewish youth sing for peace and justice at this Manayunk synagogue

Heartbeat ensemble member Dana Herz. (Photo by Shelly Tzarafi.)

If Israeli and Palestinian kids can establish common ground and mutual respect, then just maybe our own deeply polarized nation can move in that direction too. In Manayunk, that’s the driving force behind Mishkan Shalom’s annual Songs of Peace and Justice Concert fundraiser.

This year, the synagogue welcomes Heartbeat, an organization which uses music to encourage Jewish and Arab teenagers to practice empathy and nonviolent conflict resolution with programs in Haifa, Jaffa, and Jerusalem. Previously, these young ambassadors of peace have performed for the US State Department, and the US Congress and at over 30 American universities, including Harvard, Yale, and Georgetown.

The musicians appearing at the upcoming Manayunk concert include Manal Malshi, a Palestinian 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.

“A viable alternative” to hate

When he launched Heartbeat in 2007, singer-songwriter Shneyer was a Georgetown University grad 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 staffers 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.

The show at Mishkan Shalom

“I created the concert series to promote social justice and interfaith understanding among Philadelphia mosques, churches, and synagogues,” said Rabbi Shawn Zevit of Mishkan Shalom. “We support those working for nonviolent 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.” 

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 coexistence. And couldn’t we all use a little more of that?

Congregation Mishkan Shalom (4101 Freeland Avenue, Philadelphia) presents Heartbeat at its annual Songs of Peace and Justice Concert on Saturday, April 29, at 7pm. Tickets ($18 to $108) are available in advance online, or by calling 215-508-0226.

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