In Israel, singing for social harmony

Koolulam is a mass singing initiative created with the goal of mending searing social divisions in this country by encouraging people to stand up and make music together. The events are filmed and shared widely on social media and have gone viral in Israel.

Courtesy of Tomer Foltyn
Lead conductor Ben Yefet leads a Koolulam event in Tel Aviv with 12,000 participants in 2018.

Under an ink-black sky on the edge of Israel’s border with Gaza, some 3,000 people, strangers to one another, stream in on roads that have brought them from towns and cities across the country. They are religious, secular, right-wing, left-wing. 

Within two hours, these strangers are singing a complicated song about love and protection in three-part harmony. They have come together to take part in the most recent event for Koolulam, a mass singing initiative created with the goal of mending searing social divisions in this country by encouraging people to stand up and make music together. The events are filmed and shared widely on social media and have gone viral in Israel, with some having been viewed millions of times. 

At a recent event, Koolulam co-founder and musical director Ben Yefet directs the crowd in a gentle but firm voice. “If you can’t hear the person singing next to you, you are singing too loudly,” he says.

Courtesy of Tali Raz
Sheikh Haji Yahya Cholil Staquf (l.), an Indonesian religious leader, with Christian and Jewish religious leaders deliver a joint prayer for peace at a Koolulam event in the Old City of Jerusalem in 2018.

Three years ago, Or Taicher, another co-founder and a film director, writer, and social activist, was emotionally wrenched by the divisions in Israel, which had most recently been laid bare by the story of an Israeli soldier who shot and killed a Palestinian assailant as he lay on the ground seriously injured. The case and its aftermath polarized the country. 

At about the same time, Mr. Taicher came across a video of thousands of Jewish men singing in fervent prayer together at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on Yom Kippur. The sense of unity and shared purpose among strangers he saw moved him and planted the idea in his mind that perhaps music could be harnessed to help unify Israelis. 

“I wanted to remind people of the importance of being close rather than being divided,” he says. “I wondered if musical harmony could lead to human harmony.” 

He looked for partners to make his vision happen and met Mr. Yefet, a musician and conductor who had grown up religious and is now secular, and brought in Michal Shahaf Shneiderman, who had a background in digital media. 

Since then, tens of thousands of people have participated in their events, and they have had their first event abroad, in South Africa. They have requests to stage songs from around the world. Their main income comes from staging events for corporate clients, including Google, in Israel. 

Last spring in Jerusalem, they sang Bob Marley’s “One Love” in English, Arabic, and Hebrew, and the audience was made up of Jews, Muslims, and Christians.

At the events, Yefet says they attempt to create “a new reality, with new rules and a new experience for people of coming together as a group with a common goal: to sing well together and experience what it feels like to be something larger than our individual selves.”

“There is so much joy in seeing people focus on that goal and putting aside what bothers them, what they don’t agree about,” he says. “Doing this, you see how universal humanity is and how, even in such a short amount of time, you can see the power of togetherness in a society. It’s a microcosm of what we want to see on the outside – to be more aware of others, to feel each other, and be more tolerant.” 

The first step is dividing the group into practice sessions of sopranos, altos, and baritones. They then come back together and perform the piece a total of four times. The song that was chosen for the most recent event is called “Silence Above Me” by Ahuva Ozeri, who was one of Israel’s best-known singers and songwriters of Middle Eastern-style music.

The skies above Israel’s border region with Gaza, where the event is being held, have been anything but silent in the past decade amid three wars between Israel and Hamas, the militant Islamic group that controls Gaza, and the periodic flare-ups between the sides. The decision to hold the event here, organizers said, was to show solidarity with Israelis in this part of the country who have often complained of feeling alone and even forgotten by the country when they are under attack. Those attending, many of whom drove more than two hours to get here, said they were moved to take part as a way to support the border residents. 

Koolulam’s name is a play on words. Kool is a reference both to the word cool in English and the Hebrew word for voice, kol. And in Hebrew, kulam means “everyone.” “The togetherness here feels good,” says participant Iris Abramov. “You really feel the unity, even in the off-key moments.” 

Once the group is assembled again as one mass ensemble following the practice sessions, all 3,000 people raise their right arms, each holding a small, lit flashlight. Slowly in unison, they lower their flashlights, then work up to the crescendo, hands and flashlights now stretched outward and voices singing an emotional chorus: “Let me go/ Let me play the tune of love.”

Some in the crowd are swaying, eyes closed, as if in prayer. Some have tears in their eyes. Everyone seems to be smiling. On the stage, Yefet is conducting with all of his body, his hands waving in the air to the tempo, his body turning to face the different sections of his new choir for the night. 

The founders, although fixed on their goal of bringing unity through their events and breaking down the barriers between Israelis socially and politically, do not offer any prescriptions for how to make that happen after the night of singing ends. 

“Our job is not the next step,” Taicher says. “We want to give people the inspiration. One person will take that energy they get from it and create a social start-up, and someone else will build something else. The whole idea is to take people out of their comfort zone and do something positive.”

What never gets old, Taicher says, is seeing all these different people becoming one group without even noticing.

“What matters is if you have a heart and are willing to open it,” he says.

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