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Blues For Peace
Ram, Ein Gedi, Negev, Israel

Jammin' through the Holy Land

Milwaukee native initiates 'Blues for Peace' Birthright trip

By Elana Kahn-Oren of The Chronicle staff
A new Birthright Israel trip asks that its participants be ready to get totally exhausted and exhilarated at the same time. Maybe they should also get ready to jam. These young people will be taking advantage of one of Birthright's new trips - a collaboration with the Israeli organization Blues for Peace - set for Aug. 3-13, that is available free to Jews ages 18-26 who have never been on an organized peer trip to the country.

Participants will be given an inside glimpse into the diversity of Israeli music and its power to remove barriers and forge connections, explained native Milwaukeean, Johnny Mayer, who founded and heads Blues for Peace and initiated the collaboration with Birthright.

They will experience the Jewish state through its music, a unique blend of east and west, blues, jazz, Middle-Eastern, African, classical, klezmer, Hasidic and more. Tour activities will include a wide range of musical programs, including a concert by the Israeli band SOBO, a workshop on music and tolerance with Jewish and Arab musicians, an evening program of "Blues and Ethiopian music" and a visit to Galei Tzahal, the Israel army radio station.

The trip, which will be led by experienced and accredited Israeli tour guides, will also include visits to Tel Aviv and Haifa, hiking in the Golan Heights, kayaking down the Jordan River and touring at Israel's major sites. But this trip differs from the large mix of Birthright programs now available, explained Steve Jaffe, operations manager of IsraelExperts, an educational tour group that organizes this and other Birthright tours. "This program certainly adds two very interesting elements that are hardly covered in other trips," he said. "One, of course, is the musical element, a cultural element…. Then there's the peace part. I would say that all Birthright programs deal with war and peace because that's part of our life in Israel, but this program will delve more deeply," he said.

Breaking barriers

The trip correlates perfectly with the Blues for Peace mission of outreach, explained Mayer. He established the organization in 1998 "to honor the roots of blues music, and promote peace and the understanding that all people have had their share of the blues," according to its web site. Blues for Peace has become internationally recognized by UNESCO as promoting the "culture of peace" and has been featured in many Israeli and international publications.

Mayer knows what music can do in tense situations. He said that he was at a dinner in the West Bank with a group called People to People, when they asked him to share his thoughts on the peace process and the development of the Palestinian state. "I thought, 'Is there a place I can just melt away?' Then, as I was getting up, I put my hand on my chest and felt my harmonica. I said to the people, 'I'm not a speechmaker and certainly not a politician but this is what I can do.'" He then played his harmonica directly into the telephone so that this reporter could hear just what he did.

"Music changes the whole atmosphere," he continued. "Through music you can break down some of the barriers between people and create an environment that allows people to talk and try to find solutions and to build empathy." That same energy is at work with this trip, Mayer said. He sees it as a way to attract "a segment of the Jewish population that is off the beaten path…. It's a little quirky, a little offbeat, and you bring in the people who are at the fringes…."

The trip, both Mayer and Jaffe, emphasize, is not political. Neither is it only for musicians or peace activists. Jaffe said that participants will be able to examine peace from many angles, including the musical one. Mayer is clear about his focus. "We want to use the music in an overall atmosphere of enhancing the Jewish people," he said. "It's a beautiful thing to be Jewish. It's a very cool thing."

In fact, Mayer said, the Blues for Peace tour "is really a celebration of the Birthright concept itself. It enhances the overall awareness of the program," which includes Israel trips from all perspectives, such as ecology, media and communications, singles and biking.

Birthright began offering free trips almost four years ago with the intention of bringing 100,000 Jewish young adults to Israel for the first time. Originally funded by the philanthropic partners Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman, the program is now a partnership between the Israeli government, local Jewish communities (United Jewish Communities, Keren Hayesod and the Jewish Agency for Israel) and many philanthropic foundations, organizations and individuals, including the founding partners.

Israel's security situation and the current war in Iraq have led to decreased participation in the program, but Jaffe is hopeful that people will begin traveling again. Registration has already begun for the Blues for Peace Birthright trip, and planners are expecting up to 200 participants.

For more information, contact 1-866-7-ISRAEL or and

Used by permission of The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle. For reprint permission, contact The Chronicle at

© 2003, Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle

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