I was invited by Connections Magazine in Bet Shemesh to write an article about the birth and development of the Raise Your Spirits Theatre Company, which I founded in 2001. It is scheduled to run in Connections' April/Nissan magazine, since in Nissan we celebrate the righteous women who helped save the Jewish people. Righteous women saved our people in Egypt, and IY"H, they will do so in the future as well.
Since it's a bit uncomfortable for me to write how great my theater company is (although it is), how professional it is (although it is), how fabulously well-received it is (although it is), how successful it is (although it is), I thought perhaps I could write about the two performance companies that I founded RAISE YOUR SPIRITS (May 2001) and DAMES of the DANCE (December 2006), as well as other performing groups in Bet Shemesh, in which the magazine is based.
Women's theater is flourishing throughout Israel, especially women's English-language theater. It brings joy, pride, empowerment and a feeling of sisterhood to women on both sides of the footlights. Its exuberance and excitement are so remarkable for all those involved, how ironic that much of it was born in tragedy. Yet, it was the broken-heartedness that we felt exactly ten years ago that prompted the creation of the Raise Your Spirits Theatre Company.
The year 5761 (from autumn 2000 to autumn 2001) was a horrifying one in Israel. Arab terrorists perpetrated bombing/shooting/stabbing attacks every week, sometimes every day. The names of their victims were engraved on our hearts – like Eish Kodesh Gilmor, Sarah Leisha, Miri Amitai, Rina Didovsky, Binyamin and Tali Kahane, Arye and Assaf Hershkowitz. Terror attacks were particularly devastating in Efrat/Gush Etzion, a relatively close-knit area. In the space of only a few weeks, Gush residents suffered the murder by Arab terrorists of Dr. Shmuel Gillis of Carmei Tzur, kibbutznik Tzachi Sasson of Rosh Tzurim, fatherly Baruch Cohen of Efrat, baby Shalhevet Pass of Hebron and 14-year-old Yosef Ishran and Kobi Mandell of Tekoa.
Residents tried to carry on, despite their fears to drive on the road or even let their children out of their sight. But when a mother, new olah Sarah Blaustein, and a youth leader, Esther Elvan, were murdered on the road right outside Efrat in a drive-by shooting, the community's resolve shattered. Even a month after the murders, life did not return to "normal" in Efrat/Gush Etzion.
Residents began to look for solutions to the unending tears. A town fair for the children? A series of cowboy and Indian movies where they could cheer the cowboys? Nothing seemed right, until one night, while staring at an old 1940 movie advertisement for Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland's "Strike Up the Band," I recalled that the duo always tried to lift the morale of their down-trodden town. In each movie, Mickey said, "We're gonna put on a show; everyone will be in it; it'll be the greatest thing this town has ever seen." If Mickey's post-depression shows could comfort a shattered pre-World War II America, perhaps the idea could work in Gush Etzion.
I wrote a message to the Efrat List, which I had founded (based on the Bet Shemesh model) some years before. I told the women of Efrat and Gush Etzion, "We're gonna put on a show, and everyone's invited to join. It's gonna be the greatest thing this region's ever seen, and it's gonna raise everyone's spirits."
RAISE YOUR SPIRITS
I named the new theater company after its Mission, the Efrat/Gush Etzion Raise Your Spirits Summer Stock Company. (Last year its name changed to Raise Your Spirits Theatre.) Our first production was Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber's JOSEPH and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Women came from all over the country to see it. We even performed for the Women's Caucus of the Knesset, and our little girls performed on television.
The goal of Raise Your Spirits was to give women and girls something positive to look forward to, and something to do all summer - when they were afraid to travel the roads, go on vacation, or even venture out of their front doors. Nightly rehearsals were mandatory. Women walked in to rehearsal after a terror attack and benched gomel (a prayer recited after having survived a great danger), "I was here when a bomb exploded." "I was there when I heard a blast." We hugged one another, recited tehillim (psalms), and then took our places on stage.
Raise Your Spirits was about going on, especially after the horrific Sbarro massacre. It would have been much easier to stay in bed with the covers over our heads, but we had to continue with life for the sake of our families and even our nation. Raise Your Spirits gave us strength to stand up to the terror around us. We had one another to depend on, and we had a united goal that gave us a purpose in the midst of the chaos around us.
The Raise Your Spirits Rule was no excuses – nothing could keep any of our 100-plus women and girls from rehearsal. Not because the show must go on, but because life must go on. If we allowed every pigua (terror attack) to stop our lives, we'd be frozen as the Egyptians in the Plague of Darkness. We would support one another and give one another strength, but everyone had to function within her family, and then come to rehearse. The same rule followed during our performance season when terror attacks often coincided with the day of a performance. "Yes, we're performing," I told callers. "We cry, we pray and we continue."
On September 11, 2001, on our way to the theater, Arab terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center and murdered thousands of innocent people. After much deliberation, soul-searching and consultation with a rabbi, we went to all the nearby synagogues, collected prayer books, and turned our performance that night into an Atzeret Tefillah (giant communal prayer service). We prayed and wept on both sides of the curtain, and then we performed. In the darkness, we gave women, who had to show their brave face to their families, the opportunity to cry. We gave those who were frightened, a role model of courage and faith – Joseph. In a world that attacks Israel at every opportunity, we gave women a pride in our heritage and our attachment to our land. Moreover, we fostered a feeling of unity, giving women of every walk of life a feeling of sisterhood with our performers, women of every age and every profession.
Newspapers throughout the country wrote about our production, and the Jerusalem Post featured my photo as Pharoah on the front page of In Jerusalem with the words, "Brave Act". The media viewed us as women of valor standing up to terror. A bulletproof bus from Bet Shemesh brought Ramat/Bet Shemesh women to one of our earliest performances, thanks to Debbie Buckman, and they've joined us at every production since.
When Joseph's run ended, it was evident that women's theater was healthy, necessary and welcome by women from all over Israel. In addition to the supportive ingredient in the shows, they allowed observant women to discover and expand their creativity and talent in a halachic framework, while the audience enjoyed a top-notch production steeped in Jewish pride and traditional values. Raise Your Spirits director Toby Klein Greenwald said recently, "Women-to-women theater is an opportunity for women to express their G-d-given talents, bond, to empower each other and the audience of women who view them, to encourage young women and girls to feel good about themselves, to heal, to share. There is a reason we are told that through righteous women will come the redemption."
Raise Your Spirits continued with three original smash-hit Biblical musicals, which I was honored to produce, ESTHER and the Secret of the King's Court, NOAH! Ride the Wave and RUTH & NAOMI in the Fields of Bethlehem, all three written by director Toby Klein Greenwald, choreographer Arlene Chertoff and myself. (We even formed our own Biblical musical creation company, http://www.bible-arts.com.)
Performing every other year, Raise Your Spirits also took the stage with In Search of COURAGE (a revue of our previous shows with two new songs by Toby Greenwald and Yael Valier Goldstein) and JUDGE! The Song of Devora by Toby and Yael, who also served as director and assistant director.
Next month, IY"H, Raise Your Spirits celebrates its tenth anniversary. While it began as a vehicle to cope with terror, it has continued as a leading community theater company, an example of excellence on stage and off. Its members still come from all walks of life, and RYS has provided support and friendship when it has counted most – at the loss of a spouse, the murder of a child in the IDF, illness in the family, divorce, difficulties of new olim, challenges of teenagers and more.
To date, more than 40,000 women and girls have shared the Raise Your Spirits experience and IY"H will do so for many years to come. Raise Your Spirits has not only performed for the benefit of families affected by terror, but for charities like Table to Table, One Family, Hatzalah and Ohel Ari. The company has traveled to Gush Katif, Kedumim, Raanana and Jerusalem to perform.
At the request of the Jerusalem Municipality, it is currently scheduled to perform JUDGE! in Jerusalem on June 15, IY"H.
DAMES of the DANCE
Four years ago, I discovered a shocking statistic. More than 300 families in Efrat/Gush Etzion were living below the poverty line. Having taken Raise Your Spirits all over the country for other charities, I wanted to help those closer to home. I had just started taking tap dancing lessons, and I loved it, as did the other women in my group. I wanted to give dancers an opportunity to perform for other women – a prospect that was not easily found for religiously-observant dancers – while helping the needy. Upon hearing my plan, fellow dancer Fayge Bedell quipped, "What do you think we are? Lord of the Dance?" I replied, "No, we're Dames of the Dance."
Thus was born my second performance company.
Ten brilliant choreographers have led more than 100 women and teens in each of DAMES' productions – Dames 1, Dames 2 – The Passover Story, Dames 3 – The 7 Days of Creation, and this year's breathtaking and glorious Dames 4 – The Promised Land – the story of Am Yisrael in Eretz Yisrael from Avraham Avinu until today.
More than 5000 women from all over Israel (including Bet Shemesh, of course) have joined DAMES of the DANCE performances to see dancers of tap, ballet, modern, Mizrachi, Israeli folkdance, hip hop, 60s, stomp and more tell the powerful and moving stories of our Jewish heritage. Everyone from the choreographers to the dancers and off-stage staff volunteer their time for the DAMES extravaganzas, and all proceeds are contributed to Kimcha D'Pischa to feed the needy of Efrat/Gush Etzion before the Passover holidays.
Over the past four years, B"H, DAMES has donated 150,000 NIS to feed the poor. IY"H, next season's DAMES 5 – MIRACLES will tell the story of the miracles experienced by the Jewish nation in every generation.
BET SHEMESH ON STAGE
Following the success of Joseph, women's English-language theater companies in observant communities throughout Israel flourished. Not only have they given Jewish women/girls a creative outlet, they have raised much need charity dollars for a wide range of tzedakahs.
While they had no production here this year, in the past Regal Productions teamed up with charity Zir Chemed fertility center to produce The Gift of Music, Oliver with a Twist, Miri Pops In and other popularly-based classics. Also on a break this year, writer Miriam Kaplan and director Leora Adams have previously worked together on several productions over the past nine years, with charity proceeds going to several different organizations.
The Bet Shemesh productions have blended modern-day storylines with ancient ones. Miriam and Leora's first joint-outing, Generations, followed generations of siblings separated at the time of the Holy Temple through their descendants' reunion at the Kotel in our day. Footsteps tackled the issue of terrorism while it showed the intertwining lives of those on a bus trip to Tzfat. An Outstretched Arm brought together women from Yetziat Mitzraim (the exodus from Egypt) with those who were exiled from Gush Katif. Two years ago, Limudei Lottie sponsored Circle of Faith, an original musical written by Miriam Kaplan, music by Leah Lewin and Shifra Goldmeier, produced by Yehudis Schamroth and Batya Jerenberg, directed by Leora Adam, with musical direction by Shifra Goldmeier, and choreography by Sarah Tikvah Kornbluth. In Circle of Faith a teacher and her students encounter the women of the generation of the desert, and learned to apply their teachings to their own lives.
Leora explained that one of the most beautiful results of these Ramat/Bet Shemesh productions has been their creation of "an achdus (unity) you wouldn't achieve otherwise. Women from Chassidic backgrounds to modern Orthodox come together because of their love of theater and performing, and then you see Am Yisrael as it should be." She added, "Women have a tendency toward creativity. It gives us meaning in our lives and allows us to express ourselves in a way we can't while occupied with the routine challenges of diapers, homework, teenagers, and parnasa (livelihood). When women can connect with their creative side, they're able to give more to their families."
In the summer camp that Leora runs ever year, Girls R Us, she dedicates the last two days to drama, dance and song, and the girls put on a variety show, because "the stage empowers a person. It's a place where a girl can grow, develop and attain a real feeling of self-esteem." "To be able to use theater as a way of expression in the modest way of a bat melech (Psalms 45:14: “The king’s daughter is all glorious within.”), a Jewish girl/woman can make a real difference in Am Yisrael," she said. "If you use theater for the right reasons, it becomes the most invigorating and inspiring thing."
MORE WOMEN'S PRODUCTIONS
Ruchel Grundman of SpOtlight on Women brings outside women's theater in to Bet Shemesh. Recently, SpOtlight hosted Escalators, a show created by five baalot teshuva from Neve Yerushalayim. Ruchel said, "We brought them to Bet Shemesh in November, because their message of empowerment and inspiration was something our community could benefit from. We also gave young performers an opportunity to open the show for them." "Every woman has a light and something she can give – on stage or backstage," Ruchel said. "The act of giving is part of the nature of a woman, and it has to be validated in practical ways, so that entertainment is more than just going to see a show in our times."
SpOtlight had four shows in Bet Shemesh in 2010. And while it hasn't produced anything in 2011 yet, Ruchel said that it is part of the Israel 15 Program of the Jewish Agency's Partnership 2000 Project, which strides to raise the cultural and educational standing of Israel in the world to number 15. She added, "The vision for SpOtlight on Women is that the women of our region will actually earn a living through what they do – on stage and behind the scenes.
One more… For the past two years Sarah Tikvah Kornbluth brought together performers from Bet Shemesh and beyond for A Night of Inspiration. The performers were chosen personally by Sarah Tikvah, because she "liked their inspiration," and in order to promote up-and-coming performers. Sarah Tikvah, who directs a dance school in RBS, hopes to present the next Night of Inspiration in the upcoming Cheshvan or Kislev.
Photos by our own fabulous photographer Rebecca Flash Kowalsky, www.imagesthroughtime.com.
In real life, Sharon Katz, http://voices-magazine.blogspot.com, is the editor of VOICES TV and VOICES Magazine, www.voices-magazine.com, now in its 15th year of telling the world what's right about living in Israel. In her chesed life, Sharon is the founder of Raise Your Spirits Theatre and Dames of the Dance. She is also a member of the Committee for Gush Katif Bridal Showers, but that's another story. :)
Read Sharon's other blogs: http://voices-magazine.blogspot.com, http://www.aimwellwomen.blogspot.com/, and http://emastorah.blogspot.com/