BOSTON — Israeli percussionist Itai Meshorer never thought terrorism would follow him to Boston.
The 23-year-old studies at the Berklee College of Music, just a stone’s throw from the April 15 Boston Marathon bombings. Meshorer heard both explosions and saw smoke, but unlike others from his cohort of 25 Israeli music students currently enrolled at Berklee, he didn’t realize it was an attack until media confirmation.
After the attack, shady campus streets usually filled with guitar-playing hipsters were replaced by an active crime scene with hundreds of investigators.
For Berklee’s cadre of visiting Israelis, the Middle East-style bombing attack brought echoes from home and helped them reflect on the anomalous nature of their campus environment.
At Berklee, Israelis create and perform music with students from around the world – including Jordanians, Turks and Palestinians. Politics are usually checked at the door when students enter the school’s multicultural, inventive environment.
“Last night I performed with the India Ensemble,” Meshorer said. “Fifteen countries were represented among the performers.”
The Boston Marathon attack forced Berklee to cancel rehearsals and performances, and much of the campus was cordoned off for investigators.
“The attack shook all of us badly,” said Daniel Rotem, a 22-year-old tenor saxophonist and composer. Rotem has represented Israel as a performer in The Hague and Cape Town and in 2010, the Rimon School of Jazz and Contemporary Music, outside Tel Aviv, voted him its top player.
“We were going to cancel all of our shows for weeks. But the one thing I learned in Israel is to never give up to things like that. Keep pushing forward to achieve your dreams,” said Rotem. On Tuesday, The Daniel Rotem Trio will perform at the Regatta Bar in Cambridge, a top jazz venue.
Each year, Berklee hosts about two-dozen Israeli student musicians from Rimon. As Israel’s only modern jazz school, it has sent hundreds of Israeli musicians to Berklee through a matriculation agreement forged in 1992.
The Berklee-Rimon partnership turned into a model for creating what Berklee calls its International Network Partners. This means that like Israel, Finland, Korea and Brazil send their best music students to Boston each year. There, they influence each other’s art on a small campus tucked between the city’s Fenway and Back Bay neighborhoods.
‘The students’ cultures affect one another, and it’s like a wave of music changing the world’
“The students’ cultures affect one another, and it’s like a wave of music changing the world,” said David Mash, senior vice president at Berklee and a founder of the Berklee-Rimon partnership. “One-third of our students are from countries outside the US, and here they can connect in deep and meaningful ways.”
Faculty at both schools are heavily involved in the partnership, with Mash travelling to Israel each year to conduct auditions and workshops. He also helped Rimon design and equip its new building.
And coming from Israel’s only jazz institution, Berklee’s Israeli musicians have an unshakable passion for the art of improvisation.
“I love jazz because it evolves, and it is about listening,” Rotem said. Improvisational performance fills many hours a week for most students, allowing them “to speak and listen to each other through music,” he said.
Some of Berklee’s Israelis work with Arab students on more overt co-existence projects, including 26-year-old Ella Joy Meir’s “Singing for Peace” program. Meir is a vocalist and pianist who said she thrives at multicultural Berklee, where “the human factor motivates me to create art.”
Meir’s “Belly of a Whale” song is her take on the Bible’s Jonah story – “my redemption song,” she said. She also started Isis Lune, a band “combining electronic textures with a raw human element.”
Some students mentioned a shift in their self-identity as Israelis since coming to Boston.
For 28-year-old recorder player and vocalist Tali Runbinstein, it took a year of living in Boston to assimilate Israeli roots into her music.
“I have always played the recorder,” Rubinstein said. “But not until I came to Berklee did I really think about its connection to the Israeli experience. The recorder was the instrument of the kibbutz and early Israeli music. Only now, surrounded by musicians from around the world, do I make these connections between what I do and Israel.”
To sustain the Berklee-Rimon relationship, Berklee recently established a scholarship fund for Israeli students. Launched with a significant personal gift from Berklee President Roger H. Brown and his wife, Linda Mason, the fund will help Israeli students – most of whom need financial aid – study at Berklee.
Steady and vibrant, the Berklee-Rimon partnership attracts all kinds of supporters. Israel’s top diplomat in New England, Shai Bazak, speaks regularly with Berklee’s president Brown about the students.
“One of our central goals is to share Israel’s vibrant culture and art with the people of Boston,” Bazak said. “Through the amazing talent of our Israeli students at Berklee, we have the opportunity to do so.”
Much has been invested to help hundreds of Israeli music students spend a year or more in Boston since 1992. In turn, the “Berklee Israelis” have left a mark of their own on campus and in the Jewish community.
“The Israeli students have amazing work ethics and are incredibly social with everyone,” said Brett Lowenstern, a Berklee freshman vocalist known for his 2011 stint on American Idol. “Some of this is because they are all a few years older than us and served in the army.”
Several Israeli friends at Berklee convinced Lowenstern to join a Birthright Israel-Taglit trip and he regularly visits Boston University Hillel with Israeli students for Jewish activities.
“There is a lot of political ignorance on our campus,” Lowenstern said. “Having these Israeli students there makes it better because people can understand reality, and not what Israel haters elsewhere might say.”