Artists and Musicians Bring Israel to the Heart

A group of Israeli musicians is building bridges from North America to Israel, spreading awareness about Israel through art and music. They hope those bridges will bring Jews home to the Holy Land.

Debbie Berman, | updated: 19:16

Reva L’Sheva lead singer and Jewish soul-rock pioneer Yehudah Katz has developed an innovative educational project which uses music and the arts to promote a stronger connection to Israel among American Jews and help Israeli youth develop their Jewish identities. Katz, along with a group of musicians and artists who immigrated to Israel from North America, conceived of Artists and Musicians for Israel (AMI) when the experience of concert touring left them and their audiences craving something more.

Katz believes that AMI’s unique didactic approach succeeds in piercing through the superficial limits imposed by traditional educational routes, allowing the ideas of love of Israel and Zionism to enter into the hearts of American Jewish youth. “Music comes from the heart,” said Katz, referring to the Hebrew saying ‘What comes from the heart enters into the heart.’ “So it is with music. The comments we received in the States were that ‘everyone always comes here and speaks to the kids' heads, trying to push an intellectual rational message. You guys came here and poured out your hearts.’ How could we say no?"

AMI prides itself on being an apolitical body, which makes its experiences with Jews abroad a refreshing relief from the constant focus on Israel’s security and policy issues. “It makes for the kind of relationship that they’re not used to seeing when it comes to Israel," Katz said. "They are used to seeing a political, more aggressive side; they are not used to seeing something that comes on from a straight heart-to-heart level. They need that. So do we. It’s a nice, fair exchange that we experience there."

Katz said the fact that "we feel a strong connection in our hearts to all the people we meet gives us a lot of strength. At the end of a concert, there is always a panel discussion, the audience gets to talk to us and talk about life in Israel.”

The AMI artists in residence work exhaustively within the targeted Jewish community, with programming including workshops in diverse artistic areas such as song writing, ensemble performance, creative writing, photography, and painting. “So far we’ve been focusing on the U.S. and Canada. We don’t just do concerts; we stay in a community for a whole week. There is a lot of contact with a lot people during that week,” Katz explained.

The AMI model is to operate in a community-wide framework that unites diverse types of Jews together. Robert Heinrich of Detroit’s Congregation Shir Tikvah was enthusiastic about AMI’s visit to his city during its pilot program last December, which succeeded in uniting Jews of varying denominational groups and was highlighted by an electric performance with a local gospel choir. “The concert at the church cut through racial and religious differences in one of the country’s most racially divided cities. The final concert brought together Jews of all stripes from the most secular to the most observant in one room to sing and dance together,” Hienrich said.

AMI’s work within Israel targets Israeli youth and is aimed at providing them with the tools needed to bridge the deepening secular-religious divide, as well as to help them develop stronger Jewish identities. “In Israel we are addressing the issue of Emunah (faith) from a totally apolitical perspective," Katz said. "Politics simply do not matter. We need to teach ourselves, each other and especially our children that we must develop our Emunah and that it must be directly connected to faith in G-d.”

According to Rabbi Shmuel Shenler, Principal at the Orot School for Boys in Beit Shemesh, AMI's program was nothing short of an educational revolution. He said he has "no doubt that this program has the potential for great success specifically in the creative and sensitive field of musical creativity, which still has not taken its worthy place in the education of this generation, who are so sorely in need of it." Rabbi Shenler emphasized his satisfaction with the experience of working cooperatively with Katz to develop a program that addressed the specific needs of his students.

In the wake of the whirlwind success of their pilot programs, AMI has expanded operations and plans to target at least five North American Jewish communities a year. “I see us going to as many cities and coming into contact with as many people as possible and interacting with other organizations like Nefesh B'Nefesh, the Jewish Agency, and Kollel Torah M'Tzion - which are already doing great work educating about Israel,” Katz stated. The organization is slated to conduct programs in the Philadelphia area later this month.

Heinrich described the powerful impression the AMI experience imprinted on his community: "The artists and musicians of AMI managed to communicate the joy of living in Israel and the joy of being Jewish in a way that touched people’s souls. Today, as American Jews are filled with stories of the dangerous geopolitical situation in the Middle East, it is easy to view Israel as a precarious place that needs our help. While there is truth in that, there is also another side to the story. There is an Israel that is full of life with the continuing rebirth of the Jewish people. Yehudah Katz and AMI were able to tell that part of the story in an extraordinarily effective way."

“We are trying to open the door for American Jews to want to come here, they should get to Eretz Yisrael, before they plan their next trip to Paris, London or the Caribbean, Israel should be the first stop for them. This is their home. I am interested in teaching them: What is that home all about? Who is living in their home? But first they have to be taught that Israel is their home, nobody told them about it,” Katz stated.

AMI artists view themselves as ambassadors for the State of Israel mandated to spread the word about the positive elements of Israeli life and culture often overlooked by the global Jewish community. “To hear young people who have never been to Israel talk about Israel in very strong, connected kind of terms is beautiful because it makes you wonder, ‘where does this come from?’ …Something inside of them, their neshama (soul), has a strong connection to Israel. To watch all these things happen, we were so moved. We felt that we have to go back and do it again. We like to feel like we’re going out as ambassadors for the State of Israel. Hopefully we are doing a good job.”

For photos of some of AMI's concerts and events, click here.

To contact AMI to coordinate a visit to your community outside of Israel or programs at an Israeli school, please call: (02)534-5264 (from Israel) or 011 972 2 534 5264 (from outside Israel)

Ezra HaLevi contributed to this report