Back in the 1990s, Shachar Hurwitz was one of those downtown Jerusalem kids hanging out near Zion Square that pedestrians used to cross the street to avoid – mohawk haircut, multiple face piercings, boisterous.
Today, sans Mohawk and with the easier- to-pronounce stage name of Sean Hurwitz, he’s playing lead guitar with Smash Mouth of Shrek “All Star” and “I’m a Believer” fame, and is thriving in Los Angeles as an in-demand songwriter and studio musician.
Hurwitz, 35, credits Jerusalem grassroots organizations like Bayit Cham and Hineni that provided resources and refuge for at-risk teens for giving him the opportunity to develop his musical skills and find direction in life. So, it’s one of those only-in-themovies plot twists that finds him returning to Jerusalem next week to perform at a fundraiser for Sobar, a non-profit organization aiming to open an alcohol-free music club and center that will provide guidance and structure for the latest generation of disenfranchised teens and young adults.
“When I used to go downtown as a teenager, I would hang out at Zion Square or Kikar Hatulot, or go to Bayit Cham or Hineni – they were great places to get something hot to drink or a bite to eat, instead of being on the street. They were very special to me,” said Hurwitz last week from his Los Angeles home.
Bayit Cham had a basement shelter with a drum set and some instruments, and Hurwitz became a regular, encouraged by some adult supervisors like counselor Avi Tal, Hineni social worker Rachel Sanchez, and a Jerusalem musician from New York named Gershon Wolf, with whom he used to play with on Ben Yehuda St.
“I reconnected a couple years ago with Rachel and she told me about Sobar. I don’t know what I can do but it sounded like something I wanted to be part of. I grew up in Jerusalem where I had an opportunity to play and do something I loved instead of sitting on the street. I knew that I wanted to give back to enable that same opportunity for kids today who may need a helping hand. Something like this was near and dear to my heart, where I could actually impact on the lives of kids the age I was at when I was doing the same thing 20 years ago.”
Sanchez introduced Hurwitz to Sobar’s founder Tracey Shipley, and he donated a guitar to the fledgling project. But Shipley, a teen counselor in the field of addictions and creative arts as well as a mother of three young adults raised in Jerusalem, had bigger aspirations.
Her plan is for Sobar to become a focal point for misdirected Jerusalem youth “to gather to learn, practice, perform and listen to music in a safe setting that inspires them to focus their creative energies in positive and productive avenues.”
Shipley began the initiative two years ago by launching an open mic pilot program for Jerusalem Youth at the Comedy Club in partnership with Mike Perry. That expanded into weekly jam sessions and a focus on music. The goal of next week’s fundraiser is to secure a permanent location for the center on Shushan Street, steps away from Jerusalem’s main nightlife drag.
According to Shipley, once Sobar is housed in its own facilities, it will provide counseling and support groups for parents, focusing on parenting teens and young adults, and will open its doors to the public at least once a week for performances by the youth and other bands.
Moshe Klaver, one of the young musicians who will be playing in the Sobar house band, explained that Sobar has provided him with something to look forward to every week.
“When you start playing music with a band that you fit in with, all your troubles go away for those two hours. It keeps me going until the next rehearsal,” said Klaver, a 19-year-old Muncie, New York resident studying in a Bayit Vegan yeshiva for the year.
“When you’re a musician, there’s something about being in an environment surrounded by a bunch of other musicians who are really good, that lets you feel like you can be yourself.”
Klaver readily admitted that for many of his friends, the music fill a gap that would otherwise be filled with drugs and drink.
“I have friends who go there who have that problem. Kids go in that direction because they can’t channel their energy into something productive, and Sobar provides that outlet,” he said.
For Hurwitz, the attraction to Jerusalem street life in the 1990s wasn’t illegal substances or underage alcohol (both of which he shied away from), but a like-minded restless spirit he shared with what he calls the “punkistim and the freakim.”
“Even though I came from an observant family, I was a rebel. I was definitely a kikkarist, because those are the people I connected to the most,” said Hurwitz, who grew up in Pisgat Ze’ev where his parents Ira and Judy, a biochemist at Hebrew University, still live.
“But I never went in for drinking and drugs. I was very aware of what I wanted to do and didn’t want to do. I never wanted to be the guy throwing up in the corner – what’s the point?” He may not have been a lawbreaker, but by the time he was 16, Hurwitz had dropped out of high school and immersed himself in music, performing with his mentor Wolf any chance that he could – on the streets and in clubs like Mike’s Place.
His Bayit Cham counselor Tal had a small studio where he began to record parts on other artists’ music, and between the live work and studio work, he found a purpose and direction.
“Those were the years that I got the best education,” he said.
Through a mutual decision by the IDF and Hurwitz, his army service was deferred and he studied sound engineering for two years at the Yoav Gera Sound School in Tel Aviv, while simultaneously working for a sound and lighting company that catered to bands like Hadag Nahash and Monica Sex. By the time he was 21, Hurwitz was the chief sound engineer and a backline tech for some of the top Israeli rockers.
A query from his mother asking him if could see himself lugging amps and equipment when he was 35 led Hurwitz to pick up the guitar again and pursue his own musical career. And the infamous Mike’s Place 2003 suicide terror attack in Tel Aviv during the second intifada which killed three and wounded over 50, spurred him to try his luck in the US.
“I already had the feeling that I wanted to give it a shot in New York or Los Angeles, but I just didn’t feel ready going from a little lake into a big ocean,” said Hurwitz.
“Then I remember vividly thinking when the Mike’s Place attack took place, ‘you have to get out of here before some terrorist blows off your arm and you’ll never know if you could have made it as a guitarist.’” Within a couple months, he was ensconced in Los Angeles with a job at The Guitar Center music store and auditions with dozens of bands. When he left the music store job three years later in 2007, he was juggling roles in seven different bands at the same time. Today, his main vehicle is Smash Mouth, which he joined in 2011, but the credo he adopted when he moved to LA remains the same – “never turn down a gig.”
“Thankfully, I’ve been very lucky and I don’t have to take every gig that I’m offered. At the same time, the key is to never say no. You never know what connections you can make and what it can lead to,” said Hurwitz... like performing in a tiny Jerusalem club with a group of teenagers next week.
“I was thinking about this: if I were a teenager, would I even care who this guy is? I’m 15-20 years older than them and even though they may know some of Smash Mouth’s songs from the radio or from Shrek, some of my friends don’t even know who they are,” said Hurwitz with a chuckle.
“I hung out with Sha’anan [Streit from Hadag Nahash] last time I was in Israel and I had just come back from a big world tour and he said, ‘I heard you’re playing with someone now, who is it again?’” No matter for young Sobar musician Klaver – the chance to perform with an Israeli rocker who has “made it” in the US is something he never dreamed of.
“Getting to play with somebody who is as talented and successful as Shawn is incredible. I can’t wait to meet him and ask him about his life and career,” he said.
Maybe they can even put the hat down and play for spare change downtown for old time’s sake. At least this time, Hurwitz won’t force pedestrians to the other side of the street.
Hurwitz and special guest, Hayehudim veteran Daniel Breaker, will join the Sobar youth bands and Rooster’s tributes to Alice In Chains and Pantera at the Blaze Bar, 23 Hillel Street, on April 27 at 9 p.m. NIS 30 entrance. For more info, contact Tracey at (054) 810-8918 or firstname.lastname@example.org, and visit sobarjerusalem on Facebook.