Shalva Band (Courtesy/Keshet) (Courtesy/Keshet)

Separated by more “land” than “water” but far too much “trouble,” Israel’s Shalva band sings ‘Bridge Over Troubled Waters’ with artists from the United Arab Emirates.

By David E. Kaplan, Lay of the Land

The horizons of the people of the Middle East are constrained by self-inflicted ‘limitations’ but all share similar dreams and aspirations. This coincides with the message from Israel’s famous band made up of musicians with disabilities that this month collaborated with Emirati artists to celebrate the nations’ 2020 Abrahams Accords normalization deal.

“We have limitations, but we are also like everyone else,” was the bands message when they first broke into the national spotlight in 2019, competing in Israel’s top TV talent show Kochav Haba (“Rising Star”) before making it internationally.

Today, with its music heard worldwide, its message of hope and overcoming seemingly insurmountable challenges is resonating internationally.

This month’s groundbreaking performance took place on the occasion of the 31st anniversary of the Israel Association for Care and Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities, better known as Shalva. Performing with United Arab Emirates singer Tareq Al Menhali; and accompanied by the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, the lyrics of the Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” classic  – sung in Hebrew, Arabic and English – resonated far and beyond. The celebration was held under the theme – “Building Bridges to the Future”.

Guest speaker the UAE’s ambassador to the United States, Yousef Al Otaiba, said:

“The United Arab Emirates shares Shalva’s unwavering commitment to improving the lives of people with disabilities. In the UAE, those with intellectual disabilities or special needs are referred to as people of determination in recognition of their achievements across different fields. The collaboration to create the special rendition of ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ demonstrates how we must all continue to work together – regardless of nationality, religion or culture – to promote positive social change and foster more inclusive societies.”

With Shalva actively engaged with its UAE counterparts aiming in advancing the field of disability-care across the region, its founder and president, Kalman Samuels explains:

“We have chosen ‘Building Bridges to the Future’ as the theme for our 31st Anniversary Celebration to reflect the way in which Shalva is inspiring a more inclusive society, building bridges between individuals with disabilities and their broader community with a particular focus on our newly developing relationships in the Arab world as part of the Abraham Accords.”

The journey of Shalva Band is one of those ‘only in Israel’ stories.

When Shalva Band – whose 8 members all have disabilities – took Israel’s top TV talent show ‘Kochav Haba’ – Rising Star – by storm in 2019 and may have gone onto to win and represent Israel in May in Tel Aviv at the Eurovision Song Contest – the world’s most watched live music event – it was not to be!

Israelis will recall that they withdrew from the competition due to suddenly discovering that the European Broadcasting Union’s insisting that they had to rehearse on the Shabbat (the Sabbath or Jewish day of rest). The organizers refused to budge on the group’s request not to perform on Shabbat.

By refusing to break the Shabbat and turning down a chance to represent Israel in the 2019 Eurovision, the popular band, several of whose members are religiously observant, won the bigger competition – placing one’s values above all else. It was not only about religious observance – one member in the group is an atheist – it was respect to for those that are and standing together as a team! As the band members remarked after the fateful decision:

The Shalva Band’s two lead singers are blind, the lead keyboard player is visually impaired, and of the bands four percussionists, two have Down Syndrome, one has Williams Syndrome, and another is a disabled war veteran. The pioneering Jerusalem-based Shalva National Center where the band was born, provides services for thousands of children and young adults with disabilities.

Providing care, education, vocational training, and community for people with disabilities, Shalva gives equal access and opportunity to all participants regardless of religion, ethnic background, or financial capability. It was established In 1990 by Rabbi Kalman Samuels and his wife, Malki, after their son Yossi – who was born healthy in 1977 but was rendered blind, deaf and hyperactive after receiving a faulty DPT vaccination – achieved what they call “a Helen Keller breakthrough”, showing that he can communicate. Yossi has proudly shared the Shalva Band’s progress on his Facebook page.

And so, what began as an after-school programme caring for eight children out of an apartment, today serves over 2,000 people, including its house band of eight musicians – Tal Kima, Dina Samteh, Yosef Ovadia, Anael Khalifa, Yair Pomburg, Guy Maman and Naftali Weiss, under the directorship of Shai Ben-Shushan.

“It’s through music that I can be an equal,” says singer and percussionist Yosef Ovadia who has a developmental disorder known as Williams Syndrome and began attending Shalva at age seven. “Music lights up my life,” he asserts as it does fellow band member Tal Kima who has Down Syndrome and whose talent for the drums was discovered at the age of six during music therapy.

“It’s my favourite thing to do!” he says.

Dare to Dream

Their compelling story is one of overcoming adversity and coming out on top, literally, ‘on a world stage’!

Despite initial reservations of the band members of competing ‘live’ on one of the most watched television shows in Israel, with each progressive stunning performance on Season 6 of The Rising Star, there was not a dry eye amongst judges and audience as they captivated the hearts and minds of a nation that rooted for them  -“to go all the way”.

Although they did not “go all the way” having pulled out from the competition, they nevertheless took to the largest live music event in the world – Eurovision 2019 as entertainers and totally blew their audience of almost 200 million away. It was a performance that dominated the Eurovision conversation and the applause was heard around the world. BBC Eurovision tweeted it; newspapers from around the world highlighted them, and the performance was #2 TRENDING on YouTube, garnering more than double the views of most of the other contest participants.

The Eurovision organization called the band “inspirational” for “inspiring us to think differently about challenges and acceptance,” while many viewers at home said the performance brought them to tears.

Their performances changed how millions of people view and embrace disability. They strengthened children and families to believe in their amazing potential.

Now their talents  are combining with their Arab counterparts with disabilities in the UAE.

Shalva’s Global Chairman Kalman Samuels is very upbeat about

the upcoming special cover version which “we believe for the very first time, in English, Hebrew, and Arabic represent the coming together of our respective countries and the optimism we share that with love, understanding and co-operation we will make the world a better place.”

To paraphrase The Bard:

“If music be the food of love, play on, Shalva Band”

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