Matisyahu, the Hasidic reggae-rap breakout rock star, and O.A.R. (Of A Revolution), the popular island-vibe-jam band, will be playing New York City’s Madison Square Garden together January 14. But that’s not all they have in common.
Matisyahu and three of O.A.R.’s five members — Marc Roberge, Benj Gershman and Chris Culos — are 20-somethings who spent a summer in the late 1990s attending the Alexander Muss High School in Israel. All four rockers say the program deeply influenced their identity and their music.
“Spiritually it got me in touch with a higher power, which was something I had never been through prior to my time there,” Gershman wrote in an e-mail to the Forward. “I think, to put it mildly, the experience changed my life in a positive way, and I’m forever grateful for it.”
Alexander Muss offers a nondenominational eight-week academic program for American teenagers, focusing on Jewish history from biblical to modern times. Musicianship is not a formal part of the curriculum.
Matisyahu, then known as Mathew Miller, attended the program in Hod Hasharon, outside Tel Aviv, as a teenager in 1995 (Roberge and Culos took part in the program in 1996). At that point in his life, Matisyahu has said in previous interviews, he was more of a Deadhead than anything else. He credits the school with starting him on the path toward increased Jewish observance.
In an interview with Ha’aretz, Matisyahu said that it was on a field trip to Mount Scopus, overlooking Jerusalem, that he experienced his first spiritual moment. “You stand up there, overlooking this incredible city, and you sing ‘Jerusalem of Gold,’ and something big moves inside your heart,” he said. “It was the first time I felt my soul, that I really felt it. I felt G-d.”
Roberge and Culos credit the experience — particularly their field trip to Masada — with inspiring most of the material on O.A.R.’s 1997 debut CD, “The Wanderer.”
Despite their shared ties to Alexander Muss, O.A.R. members only met Matisyahu through musical circles, Gershman said.
“However,” Gershman added, “we all respect the meaning behind his music and are very happy he’s playing the Garden with us.”