The Pursuit of Harmony
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Friday night in Franklin Lakes

The Pursuit of Harmony

Jewish, Palestinian musicians spread the message of hope

Alaa Alshaham and Michael Ochs will perform as the Pursuit of Harmony musical duo at Barnert Temple, Paterson.
Alaa Alshaham and Michael Ochs will perform as the Pursuit of Harmony musical duo at Barnert Temple, Paterson.

What’s in a name? Sometimes, it’s a mission.

So it is with the Pursuit of Harmony, a name that identifies both a duo and its goal.

The two men who make up Pursuit of Harmony — Michael Ochs, a well-know songwriter/producer, who is an American Jew, and Alaa Alshaham, a noted songwriter/commentator and a Palestinian Muslim — will offer a program at Barnert Temple this Friday evening in observance of Shabbat Shirah.

Rabbi Rachel Steiner, Barnert’s associate rabbi, is coordinating the program. The performers will tell their story about meeting in the Middle East as musicians and poets, “and as people who are seekers,” she said.

“In developing a friendship and musical relationship, they began to build bridges, leading to hope. Through dialogue, story-telling, and a connection through music, they seek to engender the same kind of hope” in those they reach.

While today’s political climate was not the reason for inviting the duo, Rabbi Steiner said, their message is particularly relevant today, “with xenophobia and the ‘othering’ of people” finding heated expression in the political arena.

Mr. Ochs and Mr. Alshaham also will meet with the congregation’s teenagers — in seventh grade and older — on Tuesday. “It will be a similar message but not the same program, engaging them in who they are and how they think about themselves in relationship to other people,” Rabbi Steiner said. “It will empower them to have the ability to be agents for change.” The goal, she said, is not just for them to be moved, “but moved to act differently.”

The performers “will talk to them about how everyone can use their own specific talents to heal the world [and] to contribute toward better interfaith relations here and in the Middle East,” a synagogue statement reads. “The two will share their personal experiences of conquering apprehensions about people different from us and developing friendships in place of those fears.”

Rabbi Steiner said that music has the power to move people in ways that are “unlike anything else.” The two musicians will perform songs and prayers in English, Hebrew, and Arabic. Hearing prayers commonly heard in English or Hebrew now recited in Arabic will “provide another way to experience our own worship,” she said.

Mr. Ochs’s successful and versatile career in songwriting has covered the gamut from pop to motion pictures to gospel. In addition, since 2001 he has been composer-in-residence at Congregation Micah in Nashville, Tenn, and often is commissioned to write original compositions for congregations throughout the United States.

As a founding member of the band My Favorite Enemy, Mr. Ochs has been writing and performing in the Middle East and Europe with a group of “talented and courageous Palestinian, Israeli, Jordanian, and Norwegian songwriters and recording artists,” according to the duo’s website. “For some of these musicians, simply being a member of this unlikely collaboration poses enormous risk.”

Although he had his first paying gig when he was 12, Mr. Ochs reported, it wasn’t until much later that he realized he could use his music in the service of peace.

“On one of my first songwriting trips to Nashville, I co-wrote a song called ‘On My Knees’ with two well-known Christian recording artists and saw through that experience that music can bring people with different beliefs together in a non-threatening way,” he told the Standard in an email. “But when I began writing and performing with Alaa back in 2009, it was a revelation. We saw and felt in our bones that music could move people who feared or maybe even hated each other. Music has a way of landing straight [in] the heart and bypassing the rational part of our brain. We can begin to change the way we feel, before we even realize it. Playing in the Middle East, we saw people who would never speak to each other begin to discover they have more in common than they realized, and it was music that broke the barrier.”

The two met in 2009 through a people-to-people leadership training program founded in Oslo, Mr. Ochs said. “This is how our unexpected friendship began and took wing. Neither of us could have ever imagined being on this path together. But that’s what happens when you have the courage to step outside your comfort zone and into the unknown.”

Asked if their message ever has been challenged by an audience, Mr. Ochs said, “At our events, we are always so inspired because the message of the Pursuit of Harmony is, well, people seem to be hungry, starving, for this message. But they don’t know where to find it in today’s climate of division and fear.”

Still, he said, “I’ve had some Orthodox rabbis ask me why I bother going to Ramallah. Usually after they hear the story of my friendship with Alaa and I share pictures from Ramallah, they begin to see a side of the conflict they don’t usually see, and I think something changes. Even a small change is a change.”

Alaa Alshaham, who says his music often reflects the concerns of the Palestinian people, also is working to effect change. Mr. Alshaham was born in Jordan and moved to Gaza in 1996 after the Oslo agreement. In 2007, he left Gaza for the West Bank, where he now lives. He appears as a commentator on regional television news shows. In 2011, he established the Big Dream Initiative Children’s Choir, which now has more than 400 members.

The Palestinian member of the duo faces different challenges than does his American Jewish counterpart.

“For me, there are radicals with their own ideology trying to keep people away from any dialogue with the ‘other’ and trying to always feed the fear so they stay in control,” he wrote in an email. “And it is difficult to change their perspective unless they see and meet us together. But our goal is not to change the small minority of radicals but to reinforce the majority moderate voice.

“I’m just so proud that Michael now feels comfortable enough to have visited Palestine 20 times!” he added. “When we walk around Ramallah, he actually bumps into his Palestinian friends. Imagine that. And for me having visited over two dozen synagogues and being able to co-lead a Shabbat service — I don’t know if any Palestinian has experienced this before, and I’m so proud of the warm welcome I receive from the U.S. Jewish community.”

Mr. Ochs added that in two weeks, the two men will meet with a group of Holocaust survivors in San Francisco.

“We are so humbled and nearly speechless [at] this opportunity,” he wrote. “Alaa and I have visited Yad Vashem together, but now to sit and share Shabbat with survivors, we think this has the potential to send a crucial signal between our two peoples. By recognizing and honoring each other’s history, each other’s painful story, we can begin to create a new memory between our people.”

Asked whether people take them up on their challenge to act, Mr. Ochs said, “The immediate feedback begins during the events when we are singing to an audience or congregation on Shabbat and seeing tears of hope in their eyes. One rabbi just told us, and even posted on Facebook, that our concert and conversation transformed her soul.

“And yes, people do take us up on our challenge to act. Several students are centering their bnai mitzvah projects on the Pursuit of Harmony and working to bring Jews and Muslims together in their own communities in their own ways. After a show in L.A., an ophthalmologist was so moved he brought together other Jewish, Christian, and Muslim eye-care specialists, collected gently used eyeglasses, and they are going to Palestine and Israel together to offer free eye care to Palestinians and Israelis in need. This is the Pursuit of Harmony.”

Pursuit of Harmony

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