Aaron Shneyer believes that music has the power to change the world. A North Bethesda native and graduate of Walter Johnson High School, Shneyer, now 30, founded and directs Heartbeat, a small, independent Jerusalem-based organization that brings together young musicians from both sides of the Israeli-Arab conflict with the goal of building trust and, ultimately, forging relationships that can promote peace.
This month, a five-musician contingent from Israel is on tour in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area, performing original songs in Hebrew, Arabic and English that the teens and 20-year-olds composed and arranged. With visits scheduled for Wilson High School in the District, the U.S. State Department, American University and a private Jewish-Muslim dialogue in Silver Spring, the tour, the group’s second in the U.S. this year, culminates in a concert featuring peace activist and singer Peter Yarrow, formerly of Peter, Paul and Mary, as well as renowned folk singer Tom Paxton and Israeli and Palestinian singers and musicians joining the Sunday event at Georgetown University via satellite feed.
Shneyer, the son of Am Kolel’s Rabbi David Shneyer, grew up in a home immersed in both music and social justice. After completing a degree in anthropology at Georgetown University, the younger Shneyer received a Fulbright MTVu Fellowship, which he used to found the Israeli-based Heartbeat. He believes that by bringing together Israeli Jewish and Israeli Palestinian youths who have an abiding interest in music, he can begin to lay groundwork for the continuing quest toward conflict resolution.
“The music leads the dialogue,” Shneyer explained about how these teenagers and young adults, from disparate communities and opposing sides of the political spectrum, can come together and even forge friendships across vast political and social gulfs.
“We don’t get heavily into politics until at least a few weeks in,” he said about how the groups of teen musicians with chapters currently in Haifa and Jerusalem are managed. “We try to have it come up organically. For sure there are definitely heated arguments and challenges in the group. We let the participants bring their understanding, their voices to the table.” So, while he said that sharing ideas and feelings can at times be very challenging, and even erupt into hot-tempered arguments, each cohort of Heartbeat musicians has a professional facilitator, and sometimes a translator, although most discussions, particularly in Jerusalem, occur in English.
At Heartbeat’s core is music and Shneyer said it often helps to return to music when the politics become too distancing. “We have the music to come back to and because they are writing songs and people can put their opinions into the music, those points of tension often become really structural points of understanding as [Heartbeat musicians] begin to learn compassion for each other.”
At Georgetown, the group will bring its original sound, which draws from Middle Eastern rhythms and melodies, and Western pop, including hip-hop, reggae and rock ‘n roll. There’s the multilingual rap “Bukra Fi Mishmish,” in Arabic meaning “When Pigs Fly.”
In Washington, the young adults of Heartbeat — three Israelis and two Palestinians, joined by Shneyer playing backup on bass — are anxious to share their music and spread the word that it can indeed be a universal language of building bridges, rather than walls in a politically charged nation like Israel.
At the Georgetown University public concert, aside from Yarrow and Paxton, Heartbeat will share the stage with other notable performers including renowned Jordanian singer Farah Siraj; Humayun Khan, Afghan vocalist and harmonium player; and American cello and voice duo Bethany and Rufus. Additionally, joining the afternoon concert from Israel via satellite are popular singer/songwriter David Broza; Palestinian and Israeli high school students from the Jerusalem Youth Chorus; and Jewish, Muslim and Christian youths from the Tel Aviv-Jaffa group Jaffa Voices of Peace.
“We’re trying to reach as many corners of the city and engage with as many people as possible about the need to strengthen the work of Israeli and Palestinian civil society,” Shneyer said. He sees music as a means to amplify the voices of these Israeli and Palestinian teens. “We want to promote this idea that we can’t have peace, we can’t have a sustainable future in this region, until the Israeli and Palestinian people are empowered to take responsibility for their own lives.”
Amplified Voices: A Connections Concert featuring Heartbeat with Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary; Tom Paxton, Farah Siraj and Humayun Khan will take place on Sunday 3– 5:30 p.m. in Gaston Hall, Georgetown University. Tickets, $10-$40, and information are available at http://amplifiedvoices.eventbrite.com