For Dina Samteh, 22, who was born in India and is part of the Bnei Menashe tribe, moving to Israel was always a dream. At age 10, that dream came true when she and her family moved to Israel. Samteh, who is blind, also had a second dream—to use her beautiful singing voice to pursue a music career.
She learned Hebrew through music, singing with her mother who is a guitarist. As a teenager, Samteh became a volunteer at Shalva, the Israel Association for the Care and Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities which provides leading-edge therapies, inclusive educational frameworks, social and recreational activities, employment training, and independent living for people with disabilities.
As a volunteer, she met Shai Ben Shushan, the director of the Shalva band. Ben Shushan was part of an elite army unit when he suffered a life-threatening injury 13 years ago. He went through rehab at Shalva and emerged from that experience wanting to give back to those who had helped him. That desire lead him to form the Shalva band, of which he now leads. He credits the formation of the band with giving him the power to recover.
When Ben Shushan met Dina Samteh, he asked her to audition for the band and was so impressed with her singing that he invited her to join the band for a performance at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem a few days later. Samteh was initially nervous to perform in such a large auditorium—but the band leader explained that there wouldn’t be a big crowd there and encouraged her to push through her fear.
The Shalva band took the stage and Samteh sang her heart out. She was a natural fit in the band, made up of talented musicians who happen to have a variety of disabilities including vision impairments, Down Syndrome and Williams’ Syndrome.
When the performance was over, Samteh heard what she describes as applause that sounded like thunder. There were approximately 3,000 audience members clapping for her and the band. Her fear of performing was over and she became an integral part of the band.
If you’ve heard of the Shalva band, it’s likely from their performance at the Eurovision semi-finals in Tel Aviv last May.
The band rose to fame after entering the finals on the Israeli TV show “Rising Star,” a reality show that determines which musical act will represent Israel at Eurovision.
Entering the competition would have meant performing on Shabbat, which was not acceptable for some of the Shalva musicians who are Shabbat observant.
Unfortunately, a request to the European Broadcasting Union to allow the band to participate but not perform on Shabbat was turned down and the band had not choice but to drop out of the competition.
However, though they couldn’t ‘officially’ compete, Shalva had the chance to take the stage as guest artists at a Eurovision performance in the lead up to the finals, a performance that soon went viral with many people on social media declaring the Shalva Band the real Eurovision winners.
“Performing as guest artists in Eurovision meant that, Israel was regarded as a country that doesn’t leave anyone behind,” Ben Shushan said. “Inclusion became the topic people were sharing on social media and Israel was regarded as country that doesn’t give up on people and will invest in people.”
He also shared that after their performance, he heard from parents of children and teens with disabilities from around the world. One particular story came from a mom of a child with Down syndrome who described how before the Eurovision performance, none of the kids at her son’s school would play with him. But after they saw the Shalva performance on Youtube, that dynamic changed and kids now include him.
Next up for Shalva: Performing in the United States
While the band had started touring internationally before Eurovision, their viral performance yielded many more invitations to play abroad. This week, they are coming to perform in the United States for the first time as part of this year’s summit for the Israeli American Council (IAC), which will take place Florida this week.
“The IAC always looks for the opportunities to build bridges and close gaps within the Jewish World. This is what our annual summit is all about,” IAC Co-Founder and CEO Shoham Nicolet said. “The Shalva Band inspires people to believe in themselves and see more of humanity in others through the power of their example. They exemplify the spirit of disruptive Israeliness — and we are proud to bring their message of inclusion, diversity, unity and perseverance to our more than 3,500 people at the IAC National Summit.”
For Dina and the other band members, it’s a dream come true to spread the message of disability inclusion to Jewish audiences and to people around the world of all different backgrounds. She hopes to go on to create and perform her own original songs.
Recently, after a performance at the Klezmer Festival in northern Israel, an 8-year-old girl, who is also blind and who plays the organ and sings, came to meet Dina and thank her for being a role model. “Meeting her it reminded me of my childhood and dreaming of becoming an artist,” she said. “To be on the other side now, to be living my dream, is so moving.”
Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer directs Jewish Learning Venture’s ‘Whole Community Inclusion’ which fosters inclusion of people with disabilities through the Philadelphia Jewish community. She loves writing/editing for “The New Normal.” Her latest book The Little Gate-Crasher is a memoir of her Great-Uncle Mace Bugen, a self-made millionaire and celebrity selfie-artist who was 43 inches tall and was chosen for this year’s Jewish Disability Awareness & Inclusion Month Book Selections. She’s recently shared an ELI Talk on Standing With Families Raising Kids With Disabilities and has released a journal designed for special needs parents.
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