Shalva: The Israeli band that inspired the world to rethink disability

The band, which includes blind members and two with Down’s syndrome, wowed millions during their interval slot at the Eurovision semi-finals


When Israeli band Shalva — comprised mostly of disabled musicians — gave its rendition of Pink’s A Million Dreams at the Eurovision semi-finals in Tel Aviv last Thursday, the crowd gave them a standing ovation.

It was the culmination of a journey that only a year earlier would have just been a pipe dream for the youngsters.

Earlier this year they had participated in The Rising Star — Israel’s equivalent of Britain’s Got Talent — to find Israel’s Eurovision representative. They took the country by storm and became the favourites to win.

However, as the finals approached they were told they would be required to participate in a judges’ event on Shabbat and so they decided to pull out.

Some of the band members are Orthodox and it was important to them all that they respected each other’s beliefs and remained intact as a group.

The band was set up by Shalva, an Israeli charity which works with disabled people, together with drummer Shai ben Shushan. He had been injured in the army and, after being hospitalised for a year, approached the charity and suggested the project.

Speaking to the JC during a trip to London to organise fundraising events, the charity’s chairman, Avi Samuels, said about his organisation’s ethos: “We look for ability not disability.”

Despite their talent the band encountered challenges in being accepted at mainstream events. “At first we had to beg to allow them to perform,” said Mr Samuels.

“I will never forget those days, when people looked at them as if they were giving them a chance. But once they started playing music people saw there was real talent and that they are real musicians.”

The band, which includes blind members and two with Down’s syndrome, wowed millions during their interval slot at the Eurovision semi-finals, themed “Dare to Dream”.

Eurovision’s organisers said the band inspired people to think differently about “challenges and acceptance”.

The band’s message of inclusivity and acceptance is the hallmark of Shalva, set up in 1990 by Avi’s parents, Kalman and Malki Samuels. Their other son, Yossi, was rendered blind and deaf when he was a baby. At the age of eight, Yossi learnt sign language in the palm of his hand. Mrs Samuels was so grateful for this breakthrough that she pledged to dedicate her life to helping other families struggling to raise a child with disabilities. Yossi, 42, is now a trained sommelier.

The charity’s mission is to care for the disabled children and support their families while empowering the youngsters and integrating them into society.

“My mother never wanted to build an institution or hospital but rather a place where everyone who walks through the door doesn’t feel that they are in a ‘different’ world,” said Mr Samuels. “It is reverse inclusion which means rather than putting a kid with disabilities into the mainstream you bring the public into your world. With that comes more sensitivity.”

The Shalva National Centre in Jerusalem is a 200,000 sq ft state-of-the-art building with an auditorium, workshop, restaurant, sports centre, shop and park attracting 150,000 visitors annually. The day after their performance, percussionists Yair and Tal, both born with Down’s syndrome, were back at work in the centre. Yair was in the workshop making ceramics while Tal was serving in the café.

Although Shalva’s band is 15 years old it is only in recent years that it has been propelled to new heights — thanks to the artistic direction of Ben Shushan. The band has now broken barriers, with the bonus of being a great ambassador for Israel. “Their biggest fans are kids. They are now celebrities and are identified as the cool kids on the block,” Mr Samuels said.

The band has also released a song in Hebrew called Open The Door to inspire a change in attitudes towards disability.

For Kalman and Malki Samuels, the Shalva band, which has changed perceptions of disability in Israel, is a tribute to their work. Watching the band perform at Eurovision brought Kalman to tears.

Later, BBC Eurovision tweeted: “Shalva Band. Just one of a million reasons why #Eurovision is THE GREATEST SHOW.”

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