Pursuit of Harmony tour seeks to bring message of unity to Petaluma

Muslim Palestinian songwriter and commentator, Alaa Alshaham, and Michael Hunter Ochs, a songwriter and composer of popular music and Hebrew/ Jewish worship music, aim to break through fear and barriers with music, conversation and an example of an “improbable” compassionate friendship.|

Seven years ago, at a leadership training program in Ramallah, an unlikely friendship was hatched. The only ground rules for the program were that the participants, which included American Jews and Palestinians, could not talk about politics. It was a mystifying decree for Muslim Palestinian songwriter and commentator, Alaa Alshaham, who wondered what else the group would have to discuss. But, as people started to speak about more personal things, a shift began to happen.

“We were able to meet human to human,” Alshaham said. “That’s how we really started to see the compassion for each other.”

Michael Hunter Ochs, a well-known songwriter and composer of contemporary popular music and Hebrew/ Jewish worship music was also part of the group. As a New Yorker who grew up in a typical liberal Jewish home, he had never met a Palestinian. And, he said, he unknowingly held stereotypes about them. But the experience of connecting with Alshaham on a personal level, without talk of religion or the government, was a lightbulb moment for him. He was able to recognize that, like many people who are in conflict, Jewish Americans and Palestinians, for the most part, didn’t really know each other as individuals. And he soon realized that he wasn’t the only one who wanted this to change.

“For over 10 years I’ve been performing in synagogues around the country,” Ochs said. “Once I started visiting Palestine, I would share stories and people wanted to hear more and more about my new friends on – I hate to say it – the ‘other’ side.”

So he decided to call his new friend Alshaham and invite him to create the “Pursuit of Harmony” - a program that aims to break through the fear and barriers between different groups, like American Jews, Israelis and Palestinians, through music, conversation and an example of an “improbable” compassionate friendship. Alshaham did not hesitate to accept the invitation.

“It’s like a reconciliation program,” said Alshaham. “I won’t define it as this, but we want people to open their hearts and really see others.”

During the past two years, the pair has traveled throughout the U.S., Palestine and even to Norway, to share their story and open a dialogue “wherever there’s an interest,” Ochs explained.

“Right now, people are starving to see another part of the picture of this conflict (in Israel and Palestine),” he said. “Every time you watch the news or read the media, it feels hopeless, but it isn’t hopeless - we just don’t know each other.”

Rabbi Ted Feldman of the B’Nai Israel Jewish Center in Petaluma invited Ochs and Alshaham to bring their music and new way of looking at things to Sonoma County. On Jan. 29 – Jan. 31, the Pursuit of Harmony will lead four events, including a Shabbat dinner, a concert, a workshop for kids and a talk by Alshaham about being a moderate Muslim Palestinian at the B’nai Israel Jewish Center and the Petaluma Historical Museum.

Rabbi Feldman has led the congregation of about 120 households at B’Nai Israel for 11 years and has taken groups from Petaluma to Israel three times. While the Pursuit of Harmony will be a new venture for him and for the 150-year-old Jewish Center, he believes it’s an important event for the community, especially given the nature of the Middle East in this moment. One thing that especially appeals to him is that the project is explicitly not about fighting about history or political debates.

“I would hope that people who have different views would rally around the human connection that is possible,” he said. “It’s important for us to understand the perspective of the Palestinians, we can disagree with it, but we have to know it in order to understand.”

In addition to their weekend in Petaluma, Ochs and Alshaham will also bring their project, for the first time, to a group a Holocaust survivors in San Francisco.

The duo believes that their work stands apart from the efforts that politicians and government make in many ways, including the use of music which, as Ochs explained, “completely bypasses the rational part of your brain” and unexpectedly makes you feel emotion, which can be stronger than intellect. And, he said, by breaking down the “boxes” that build up fear, create opposition and essentially forbid people on different sides of the conflict to connect as human beings.

The simple act of hearing a Palestinian man sing Jewish prayers in Hebrew and Arabic in a synagogue, said Ochs, can affect profound changes on people. Compassion for someone you were supposed to fear, he said, has influenced an American Jewish eye doctor to offer free eyeglasses in the West Bank and a 13-year-old to dedicate her batmitzvah to supporting conversations between Israelis and Palestinians. Ochs and Alshaham believe that when people duplicate the friendship that they demonstrate, they bring a new hope and promise to any conflict.

As Ochs explained, “Once someone starts to feel some hope, they will take it upon themselves to step up.”

To buy tickets, contact the B’nai Israel Jewish Center office at 762-0340 or office@bnaiisrael.net. For tickets to Saturday’s concert, visit petalumamuseum.com.

(Contact Ariana Reguzzoni at argus@arguscourier.com)

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