By Toby Klein Greenwald
ATARA, the Association for Torah and the Arts for Religious Artists, was founded in 2007 by a group of religious women, including Miriam Leah (Droz) Gamliel, who is originally from Pittsburgh but has since moved to New York and now lives in Montreal. Their goal was to enable artists to pursue their craft while also maintaining their observance of halachah, especially women who would not perform at a mixed-gender venue. After five annual conferences bringing women together for weekends of performances and training opportunities, in 2014 ATARA was chosen to be one of the outstanding organizations and projects recognized by the Slingshot Fund for making a difference in the lives of religious women and girls.
I was privileged to be among the founding board members, and the only one from Israel at the time (I have since been joined by Aviva Spiegel and Leah Bassett). A few years earlier, Adena Blickstein, today of Englewood, NJ, had created PWT (Professional Women’s Theater) in Jerusalem. I was already the theatrical director of Raise Your Spirits Theatre in Gush Etzion, and Adena and I had brainstormed about bringing many women performers together. Adena was also instrumental in the first ATARA conference that was held at Stern College in 2007.
In addition to the involvement of a growing group of women with talent and interest, Miriam Leah was dedicated to connecting the threads of the burgeoning phenomenon of religious women performing, and weaving them into one tapestry. But she attributes the community’s growth to the group of women contributing to the venture, including Esther Leah Marchette, a musician and composer from Boston; Yocheved Polansky, a dance teacher from Cleveland whom she credits with maintaining the vision and inspiration in the earliest years; Amy Guterson, an actress and playwright from Pittsburgh, originally from New York, founder and director of Tzohar Seminary for Chassidus and the Arts, Leah Bassett, a dancer and actress from Toronto; as well as Aviva and me, among others. We shared the dream of making ATARA international.
That dream is drawing closer. Henya Storch joined ATARA several years ago as a senior concept and business adviser, dedicated to helping ATARA gain more exposure and to helping its members and their projects grow and prosper through private and foundational funding. I joined Miriam Leah and Henya in organizing the first-ever ATARA meeting in Israel, at the Inbal Hotel, after Sukkot.
Henya said after the meeting, “In my business in the USA, I am privileged to work with many accomplished Jewish performing artists. It was a wonderful experience for me to see the depth and breadth of the artistic abilities in Eretz Yisrael. The Inbal experience was the perfect showcase for this inspiring talent, and I cannot wait to see what wonderful collaborations result.”
This goal of collaboration is not a simple one. In the limited target audience for religious women in the performing arts (which automatically begins at 50% of the potential numbers for male performing artists), there is always the danger of competition causing difficult feelings among performing artists, all of whom are working hard to make their individual mark in the world. It’s a challenge to preserve one’s humility and integrity, remembering to give credit where due, and to show hakarat ha’tov where appropriate.
A special guest at the Inbal event was Myrna Zisman, an activist whose plan is to help locate individuals and organizations that will help the Israeli ATARA women fulfill their dreams. As a trustee of the Village of Cedarhurst, Myrna is involved in bringing cultural and music programs for the entire community to their local parks. She is a Five Towns JCC board member involved in arts programming, recently working with Kesher Yehudis to provide afterschool dance and music lessons for Israeli Americans to foster positive Jewish identity.
The women who met with Henya and Myrna were from Jerusalem, Ramat Bet Shemesh, Maale Adumim, Efrat, and Bat Ayin. Some have been in Israel for decades; a few were recent arrivals. All share a love of the performing arts within a Torah atmosphere.
Myrna said, “As a longtime patron of the performing arts, it is one of my passions and privileges through my foundation and charitable giving to help Orthodox girls and women develop and showcase their creative talents, which are beyond phenomenal. In Jerusalem, we dedicated a Women’s Torah and the Arts college building through the worldwide Emunah organization, which awards bachelor’s degrees in the fields of dance, art, and theater.
“Meeting at the Inbal with Orthodox women pursuing careers in the arts was exhilarating. And yes, they need financial help with scholarships, developing their talent, and finding audience patronage and foundation money required to reach the public in a professional manner. I’m doing my utmost to help, but there are many people we need to reach and encourage to fund and sponsor these talented, Torah-based, gifted women who are really a kiddush Hashem.
“We also need audiences, schools, shuls, families and organizations to attend their performances, purchase their art work, buy their CDs and DVDs, and invest in bringing the love of Judaism and talent to the world.”
Meet The Performing Artists, Directors,
These are some of the women who were present at the Inbal meeting:
Franciska Kay, who performed for the ATARA conference last year in Baltimore, is originally from Moscow and lives in Philadelphia; she says she has “not yet” made aliyah but has performed for ATARA in the U.S. She sings and composes albums and music videos. She is seeking funding for marketing more music projects and for producing large-scale professional performances. “It was so nice to have an opportunity like this and to be taken seriously,” she says about the Inbal meeting. “Money for art. This is unusual.” She recently made a video clip, directed by Leah Gottfried, incorporating girls dancing at the seashore to a song she composed about Miriam’s song on the shores of the Red Sea.
Shaindel Antelis, who has performed at ATARA conferences in the past, is from Elizabeth, NJ, and is currently working in kiruv at Neve Yerushalayim, trying, she says, “To help beautiful neshamos (souls) connect to Judaism. I am also a singer and songwriter and I’m always working on writing new songs with positive messages to inspire women and girls. I have been writing songs since age ten and it really helped me release my emotions and work through struggles that I faced. I want to empower women to feel beautiful, happy, and worthy.” She has a new album that has been written and recorded but is seeking funding to complete it and market it. Shaindel says, “At the Inbal meeting I felt so proud of the work that these talented Jewish women are doing. It helps to know you’re not alone, and that we are all in this together, trying to share positive and kosher messages.”
Annie Orenstein and Rochel Grundman are the co-founders and directors of “Spotlight on Women,” livestreamed to the ATARA conference last year in Baltimore. Rather than focus on promoting their own talents, they have been providing performing opportunities and venues for a diverse group of women in the performing arts for more than ten years through performance evenings and chol ha’moed “women’s tents.” Orenstein’s latest endeavor is a radio show called “Spotlight on Women” that broadcasts every Tuesday morning (11 a.m. Israel time) from Maale Adumim via the internet or on channel 106 FM. Annie says, “Our flagship program, ‘Stage Night: Open Mics for Women and Girls,’ exists to encourage a safe space of expression that is consistent with Torah and halachah. Our dream is to be able to celebrate our differences and share our strengths with others, bringing achdus (unity) to all of Am Yisrael.”
“Spotlight on Women” is seeking $60,000 for the 2018 year calendar of programming, which will include the radio show and ways in which to promote religious female performing artists, and livestreaming of “Voices of Hope 2” on International Women’s day, to be viewed in Israel and abroad. “Spotlight on Women” is now a project under the auspices of Emunah Women of Jerusalem.
Annie made aliyah with her husband in 2003 from Brooklyn, NY, and lives in Maaleh Adumim with her family. She has a degree in early-childhood education and runs an afterschool program for children in her home.
Rochel is originally from Queens. She was trained in New York City at the School of American Ballet and was a member of two ballet companies in the U.S. before making aliyah in 1975, at which time she danced as a member of the Israel Ballet. Rochel and her husband, Aharon Pinchas, raised their children in Brooklyn, where Rochel taught ballet to women and girls and worked with women in Community Theater, Israeli folk dance, and in organizing and producing entertainment events for women to raise funds for Jewish causes. In 2000, the Grundmans returned to Israel with their family and now live in Ramat Bet Shemesh. Rochel continues to coach dancers and serves as the creative director for “Spotlight on Women.”
Leah Tsiporah Bassett, an ATARA board member, is originally from Winnipeg, Canada. She and her husband, Benyamin Yoseph, moved from Toronto to Israel a few days before Rosh Hashanah. They are the newest dorm parents at a girls’ school in Bat Ayin in Gush Etzion. She is a dancer, choreographer, actress, improvisation artist, teacher, entertainer, mime, and Torah teacher. She says, “Hashem has given me many gifts, and these come with responsibilities, which I take very seriously. Since I was born, I have been entertaining those around me, innately recognizing when someone was in need of an emotional reset via either comedic intervention or soul-stirring inspiration. A few weeks ago, at a meeting at the Inbal Hotel in Jerusalem, there was a gathering of holy creative women, and the event reignited my intense desires to artistically soar!” The projects she would like to see funded include “a one-woman show of my Jewish journey back to my true self, leading into a musical theatre production, a choreographed musical version of the Tikun Klali, as well as continuing to produce shows by women for women and running improvisation workshops.”
RBS Dance and Music Academy opened its doors seven years ago in Ramat Bet Shemesh. Co-directors and founders Shaked Sebag and Jezliah Villarreal both made aliyah in 2010 from Arizona and Texas, respectively. The academy offers professional training for women and girls starting from age four in jazz, ballet, contemporary, hip-hop, and musical theater, as well as voice training and Glee performance classes. In seven years, more than 200 have joined their programs. Jezliah and Shaked dream of having their own building with proper dance and music equipment, where the academy can have the flexibility to grow. There is also need for funding in order to produce the annual production in a large and high-caliber venue. Shaked and Jezliah were happy to hear about the wonderful things the women are accomplishing in the arts. They said, “We were truly impressed by Myrna and her devotion to supporting Jewish women in the arts, as well as other worthy causes. Thanks so much!”
Sarah Spielman is originally from London and made aliyah to Israel 16 years ago. She was the winner of the first talent show held by Professional Women’s Theater more than ten years ago. Sarah performs her own original songs for which she writes both the music and lyrics, and she performs songs from opera and musicals. Her show is called “Time–Find the Rhythm,” which, she says, combines original music with personal stories that reach women consumed in the stress of everyday life. “It uplifts and transforms women by inspiring us to connect to our own personal voice and turn to Hashem.” She is working toward completing her album which she says “has incredible high-level arrangements using a range of instruments” and would also love to make video clips “that can reach people with my powerful messages and music, all over the world.”
Rebbetzin Judith Gerzi made aliyah from London in 2004 with her husband, Rabbi Yehoshua Gerzi, and their three-year-old daughter. Growing up religious, and extremely shy, she never imagined she would become a soul singer, sometimes compared to Adele. Now a mother of five, Judith says, “I gain strength and support from my family and fans and am also grateful for direction from the Biale Rebbe to embrace this gift from Hashem and move crowds through my voice and lyrics.” She is touring in Israel and abroad with her new show “Awakening,” named for her recently released debut album. She tailors her performances to her audience, whether seminary girls, tourists, or private or large functions. Her background–a father from Libya, a mother from London, and a great-great-grandfather who was a rabbi known for his energy healing–is as eclectic and intriguing as her musical styles. Judith gives private performances for children and women enduring life-threatening illnesses, and under other hats owns a wig salon and g’mach, and is an active shul rebbetzin. She is seeking $7,200 for her next album, which will have both Hebrew and English original songs, and another $6,000 for music videos. Judith says, “We need the big stages, too; we need to move people’s hearts, even more than a men’s concert, as it’s the women who are the bayit, the home, and who need the strength, the connection, the self-belief. We are the ones who will lead our children’s futures and ultimately bring Mashiach.”
Sharon Katz, originally of Woodmere, made aliyah with her husband, Izzy, and five children to Efrat in 1992 and has been involved in community activities from the beginning. She founded or co-founded four women’s and teens’ theater and dance performance projects or companies, and has co-authored and produced four of the biblical musicals of Raise Your Spirits Theatre. In America she had been eastern editor of the Hollywood Reporter. In Israel she was the editor of Voices Magazine and is an active blogger. She also works as a production manager for the Torah Live and Shoot East film companies. Sharon recently co-authored and co-composed a musical about the secret Jews of Spain, called Hidden, based on the book The Family Aguilar by Rabbi Marcus Lehmann, for the Women’s Performance Community (WPC) of Jerusalem in conjunction with the OU, and is seeking funding to complete the musical arrangements.
As the moderator of the Inbal event, I shared my dreams last. I have created or directed numerous theater and writing projects, including with teens at risk and with populations that have suffered trauma, such as women and girls from Gush Katif, and teens and adults who experienced terror attacks. Among my new projects are: the writing of a new biblical opera for Raise Your Spirits Theatre, of which I’ve been the theatrical director and co-author or author of seven of its productions since its creation in 2001; the co-writing of a show on mikveh that will include both drama and humor and will also relate to women who are disabled or who have suffered abuse; continued development of my improvisational Na’na Playback Theater-Dance Troupe; a show on Gluckel of Hameln and DoÃ±a Gracia; and a show called “A New Song–Music and Monologues of the Missing Jews,” which will include stories of the Jews of Spain, including the anusim (in the Spanish context usually referred to as “conversos”), a topic on which I’ve gathered material for many years, as well as stories of Jews from India (the B’nei Menashe), China, Africa, and elsewhere, some believed to be descended from the ten lost tribes. This was originally conceived as a show only about the Jews of Spain, but in order not to compete with the WPC show, I expanded it into a theatrical concept that will encompass secret, missing, and hidden Jews throughout the world.
All of the women at the ATARA Jerusalem meeting expressed appreciation to Henya Storch and Myrna Zisman for their support. Annie Orenstein said, “It was a wonderful opportunity for musicians and producers in Israel to come together and network and create a community of artists. I have had the privilege to have worked with many of these women over the course of 10 years, and we are excited for the potential for them to flourish and grow. Thank you for giving us the platform to share our dreams!”
Sarah Spielman said, “I felt very inspired at the Inbal meeting by the professional level of religious women in music, and I believe that we have a strong voice that needs to be heard–a voice of music where the words are holy and show what an amazing world we live in.”
Toby Klein Greenwald is a recipient of Israel’s Ministry of Education’s Yaakov Egerest Award for Jewish Culture, and is a journalist, teacher, and editor-in-chief of the award-winning WholeFamily.com site. She can be reached at email@example.com.