Michelle Citrin: If I Fall
Folk singer Michelle Citrin made a connection between Birthright Israel and music almost a decade ago as a student at Rutgers University. Her experience traveling to Israel on one of the first Birthright trips at the start of the second Intifada inspired her to write "Dark Refrain," a song about looking for a time of peace.
Shai Haddad, a.k.a. SHI 360, was also stirred musically, turning to hip-hop to express his feelings. After making aliyah in 2006, he wrote what has become the Birthright Israel theme song, "Home."
Haddad now performs the song in front of thousands of people at Birthright's "Mega Event" concerts.
In a move that echoes this fusion of cultural exposure and music, the Taglit-Birthright Israel Alumni Association, recently rebranded as Birthright Israel Next, has launched the Israelity Tour -- a seven-city West Coast concert extravaganza aimed at exposing young American Jews to Israeli culture, promoting the free 10-day educational trips to Israel for 18- to 26-year-olds, as well as cultivating the connections alumni of the trip have already made to the Holy Land and one another.
Israelity kicked off in Seattle on Feb. 6 and focuses primarily on major Jewish communities where Birthright trip registration rates are significantly lower when compared with those from East Coast communities. The goal is to make Birthright a household name, said Sydney Henning, the group's national initiatives director.
Birthright says Los Angeles registration rates for trips are fairly high among West Coast cities. Still the organization considers Los Angeles an important destination to augment its alumni programming. The Los Angeles leg of the tour will play the Avalon in Hollywood on Feb. 16.
Flipping the Birthright model on its head, the Israelity Tour is "Where West Coast Meets Middle East." Instead of bringing Americans to Israel, the tour brings Israel to America, with music performances by Israeli hip-hop luminary Subliminal a.k.a. Kobi Shimoni and his seven-member crew -- the T.A.C.T. Family (Tel Aviv City Team) -- funk/hip-hop band Coolooloosh and folk singer Citrin.
"I really believe in what Birthright is doing," Shimoni said in a telephone interview from Seattle. "I respect their efforts, and I want to help in any way that I can."
With songs like "God Almighty When Will it End?" a moving homage (above) to those who perished in the Holocaust, Shimoni has already made his presence known beyond Israel's hip-hop scene, where he is one of the most dominant acts.
Shimoni, 28, has toured the United States several times, drawing enthusiastic hordes of Israelis and Americans with his polished rap style and proudly pro-Israel lyrics. But this is the first time he and the artists under his record label T.A.C.T., have participated in such an emissary concert tour.
The rap mogul will not only be performing new, high-intensity shows created specifically for the Israelity Tour, but he will also be speaking at the tour's college campus outreach programs -- another first for him.
"I think it's important to let Jews all over the world know that they always have a home in Israel," said Shimoni, who this week is releasing what will be the official "Israel at 60" theme song. "If they have problems where they live, like in France, they have somewhere to go."
Citrin, who made a splash on YouTube as Rosh Hashanah Girl (a spoof of Obama Girl), has a soulful sound that nicely complements her earthy lyrics. Since her Birthright trip eight years ago, one Israel-related involvement led to another until she was approached to participate in this tour.
She agreed without hesitation.
"I'm excited to finally be bringing two parts of me together -- the Jewish side and the musician side," said the petite, dreadlocked singer. "I'm proud to call myself a Jewish female singer-songwriter."
Jerusalem-based Coolooloosh is an up-and-coming fusion band with an eclectic mix of hip-hop, rap, jazz and funk. Their front man, Rebel Sun, an African American who was raised Jewish and made aliyah, raps mostly in English, though the band does have several tracks in Hebrew. Coolooloosh could best be described as a "festival band" -- their music is so lively and festive that you can hardly contain the urge to get up and dance, which is what their audiences tend to do.
In addition to the high-energy concerts at mainstream venues like the Avalon and Tao at the Venetian Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas on Feb. 17, the Israelity Tour has been hosting mifgashim (encounters) on college campuses, where three former Israeli soldiers and three American Birthright alumni, along with the musicians, get the opportunity to share their personal stories, misconceptions about the 'other' and the effect Birthright has had on them.
"It changed my life," said Itay Mor, echoing an oft-expressed sentiment from Birthright alumni. The soft-spoken Israeli from Haifa accompanied four Birthright Israel trips while serving in the Israel Defense Forces as part of a program that brings American participants and Israeli soldiers together for a cross-cultural exchange. Mor, 23, said these encounters are as influential on the Israelis as they are on the Americans visitors.
"I fell in love with the program because it made me appreciate my own Jewish identity," Mor said. "I have always been proud to be Israeli, but Birthright made me proud to be Jewish."
Hosted by comedian Mo Mandel, a Birthright alumnus who was recently seen on Comedy Central's "Open Mic Fight," the mifgashim are as cross-cultural roasts where the Israeli and American participants point out stereotypes and cultural differences in a loving manner. It's earnest attempt to address young American Jews' anxieties about Israel.
A recent study by sociologists Steven M. Cohen and Ari Kelman that found only 54 percent of American Jews under 35 are "comfortable with the idea of a Jewish state," and tour consultant and blogger Esther Kustanowitz feels that Birthright's initiatives are increasingly important in order to stem the tide of alienated American Jews.
"We are countering the message that Israel is a problem," she said. "The people involved in this tour are emissaries of a country that is often misunderstood, and they are very much looking forward to bringing their message to the crowds."
The Israelity Tour comes to Los Angeles on Sat., Feb. 16. Avalon, 1735 Vine St., Hollywood. 7 p.m. $15 (pre-purchased), $20 (at the door). Must be 18 to enter, 21 to drink. For tickets or more information, call (800) 466-0552 or http://israelity.birthrightisrael.com; for the Isreality blog, visit http://israelitytour.blogspot.com.