Aaron Shneyer believes that music can transform the world — or at least change people and communities for the better. The Takoma, D.C., resident was practically born with a guitar in his hand: his father, Reb David Shneyer, is a long-time activist, rabbi and a founder of Fabrangen Fiddlers, the popular D.C. Jewish music ensemble at the forefront of the 1970s revival of Jewish folk music.
The founder of Heartbeat, a music-based conflict transformation program for Israeli and Palestinian youths, Aaron Shneyer is managing director of One Common Unity, which provides violence prevention programs in D.C. public schools with an emphasis on the arts.
He is serves as music director of Sixth & I Synagogue, where he co-leads Shabbat and holiday services. A graduate of American University’s social entrepreneurship program, Shneyer, 38, has built a life centered on using music to bridge barriers and bring communities together.
So much of you work is rooted in music. When did it start for you?
Growing up in Rockville, it’s no surprise that I was drawn to music. My parents say that by the time I was learning to walk, I was carrying around a little plastic guitar. It’s been there ever since, but it’s not plastic anymore. In high school I joined Operation Understanding [which brings together African American and Jewish teenagers to promote respect and cooperation while fighting racism], and that imbued this deep sense of purpose in me to use music to dismantle hatred and bring healing to the world.
Can you share examples of how you’ve done that?
I got a Fulbright MTV fellowship to study the power of music to build mutual understanding. So I went to Jerusalem to start Heartbeat. For the past 14 years I’ve been trying to harness music’s power to create a better future there.
In Heartbeat, young people — Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs — often will enhance their own understanding of their identities and will feel more connected to their own communities. At the same time, in Heartbeat we’re able to dismantle the otherness, the sense that this is Israelis versus Palestinians. Instead, it’s about people who are allies in wanting a better future for everyone.
How does Heartbeat make a difference?
Participants who’ve come through Heartbeat are unable to hate blindly. They see the other community’s struggle as their struggle and feel solidarity and commitment to working together. They join us when they’re 14 or 15 and many of our youth have pursued music careers. [Some] are now quite literally the leaders of their community music scenes. Some of our Palestinian participants are really at the top of the very strong music scene in Palestine.
What about your work here in the District?
At One Common Unity we do violence prevention in D.C. public schools with an emphasis on the arts. I’ve been there five years as managing director. But music has definitely been the through line in my life …. Music ties me to [both] those organizations.
Tell us about your new album.
It’s primarily in English, with some Hebrew, Arabic and also Spanish. One song I wrote on my wedding day and one, “Am X Chai,” is a take on “Am Yisrael Chai,” but it says am yisrael [the people of Israel] should live and also am Palestine — all the people should live. Our lives are interconnected.
[The album] is very, very dear to my heart. I spent over 12 years trying to perfect it and am excited to put it out in the world. I chose the name “The Love Rebellion” because I’m hoping that with all the challenges we face in the world, we can love and center the needs of each other and the needs of the planet. As strongly as the largest armies in the world would go to war, we should go out into life with that same care for each other.
One of my biggest dreams is to sing my songs in a room with a couple hundred kind souls, singing along at the top of their lungs.
Shneyer and The Love Rebellion perform May 15 at Pearl Street Warehouse. Tickets are $10. https://www.pearlstreetwarehouse.com/event/aaron-shneyer/