Lior Ben-Hur teaches music at Camp Ramah. (Photo/Courtesy Ben-Hur
Lior Ben-Hur teaches music at Camp Ramah. (Photo/Courtesy Ben-Hur

Israeli-born musician Lior Ben-Hur puts his ‘Heart’ into Bay Area music education

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For 20 years, Israeli-born singer-songwriter Lior Ben-Hur has been performing his music for Jewish audiences in the Bay Area. Now, with his nonprofit Music by Heart, Ben-Hur wants you to make your own music.

Music by Heart provides schools with curricula for music classes, and with professional development in music education for teachers and administrators. Founded in 2020, the nonprofit also offers workshops in drumming, songwriting and musical prayer to people of all ages.

Ben-Hur, who has worked as the music director at Yavneh Day School in Los Gatos since 2016, creates and teaches all of the programs.

“To be in service to the community, I had to understand how I could use all the tools and experience I learned to give it to other people to train, to write curriculum, to write programs that they can use when I’m not there,” Ben-Hur told J.

Music by Heart’s programs focus on teaching students the foundations of music, such as singing, playing instruments and writing songs, while building in elements of Jewish culture, Hebrew language and Israel education.

Under the umbrella of Music by Heart, Ben-Hur has worked with Oakland Hebrew Day School to build its K-8 music program from the ground up. He is also helping Hillel at Stanford form its own student band, after five years leading the music in services.

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The cornerstone of Music by Heart’s curriculum is “Cousins Like Us,” a musical storybook and album that Ben-Hur worked on for seven years. The e-book and accompanying album tell the story of Shoshi, a young Latina Jewish girl living in San Francisco who is visited by her cousin Yoav from Jerusalem.

Ben-Hur and his team, illustrator Daniel Buckwald and dancer-playwright Bruce Bierman, created the project to teach children about Jewish values through music, he said. He uses the book as part of the musical curriculum he offers, and he hopes that children will take it home to share with their families and have their own experiences with the story.

“That way, everyone works their own magic,” he said.

Ben-Hur was inspired to create “Cousins Like Us” by his family. His wife, Diana Suarez Ben-Hur, is originally from Colombia; their daughter, Flora, voices Shoshi on the album. Ben-Hur said he wanted to tell a story that highlighted the Latin-Jewish community. “It was very, very important to me to show a story of Judaism that is not represented in the Jewish world enough,” Ben-Hur said.

Zvi Weiss is one of the first people Ben-Hur approached about the idea for Music by Heart. The former head of school at Yavneh who now heads San Diego Jewish Academy, Weiss serves as the board chair for Music By Heart.

Weiss said the nonprofit aims to teach both teachers and students to connect with their spiritual side through music. That’s something Ben-Hur is very talented at, Weiss said, having seen it first hand in classes at Yavneh.

“He cares so much about his students, about the world, about music and the power of music in transforming people’s lives,” Weiss said. “It’s absolutely magical.”

Originally from Jerusalem, Ben-Hur moved to the Bay Area in 2004 to explore the U.S. music scene. His first gig was leading youth services during the High Holidays at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. He later became the music teacher at the congregation, and he has taught at dozens of Sunday schools and synagogues.

Ben-Hur also leads a nine-piece reggae group called Sol Tevél. Their 2017 album “So I Wander” reached No. 14 on Billboard’s reggae album chart.

In his teaching as well as his work with Music by Heart, Ben-Hur said his goal is to create programs that do not need him. He wants to help the schools, synagogues and camps he works with build self-sustaining programs that, when he leaves, can run without him.

“I can actually step back and they can shine,” he said.

Lillian Ilsley-Greene
Lillian Ilsley-Greene

Lillian Ilsley-Greene was a staff writer at J. from 2022-2023.