Monday, December 21, 2009

Find the Light in the Night
Blog for Parshat Miketz, performed at 14th Street Y in NYC
by Jon Adam Ross

There was a moment at the beginning of our show, Field of Dreams, when I knew that our audience was fully engaged and ready to go on a journey with us. I was playing ‘Grandpa Judah Maccabee’ and I couldn’t find my hammer (of course it was sticking out of my back pocket). Now as I was spinning around the stage looking for my hammer, many children and adults in the audience started shouting for me to look in my back pocket. One enthusiastic child felt it was his responsibility to grab the hammer out of my pocket and give it to me. It was a kind gesture. But then he wouldn’t let go. For about five minutes, every time I held up the hammer, the little boy would run up to the performance space, and grab the hammer back from me – just as a reminder, I suppose, of who the hero in the audience that found the hammer in the first place really was. Chanukah is a holiday all about heroism; we tell many stories about the bravery of the Maccabees. And yet, I had never made a connection in my head between the Chanukah story and the corresponding narrative in the Torah that we read this week during our festival of lights. But that name for Chanukah, the ‘festival of lights,’ holds the clue.

In Miketz, we hear about Pharaoh’s bad dreams – the ones about the 7 fat cows and the 7 skinny cows, etc. And we hear the tale of how Pharaoh cannot find anyone to satisfactorily translate his dreams into actionable intelligence; that is, until he meets Joseph. Joseph (played in our show by the multi-talented Jewish rock star ShirLaLa - founding company member Shira Kline) not only translates Pharaoh’s dreams for him but gives Pharaoh the gift of en'light'enment. For so long Pharaoh has been unable to sleep through the night – his dark nightmares cursing him to lie awake in bed – staring into even more darkness (not an uplifting situation). But Joseph reveals that 7 years of plenty are on the way, followed by 7 years of famine. And that if Pharaoh can devise a way to take the plenty and make it last 7 more years (kind of like getting oil for a lamp to last 7 more days), then all will be well. A long time ago our ancestors were living through a dark situation themselves: the first winter. It was getting darker and darker as the days were getting shorter, so our ancestors lit a candle, and the next night another candle. For eight whole nights this went on. And they weren’t scared anymore. We can go back even further to God’s first words in the Torah: “Let there be light!” There was only darkness before and God created light to fill the void. Joseph gave that light to Pharaoh, to save all the people in Egypt and the entire region (including his own family). Each time I have the privilege of performing as a Storahtelling maven, I feel that I am being put in Joseph’s position. Just as Joseph translated Pharaoh’s dreams, so I translate the Torah, shedding light on a story that may otherwise seem to dwell in a dark, faraway place that has no relevance or bearing on our lives today. But that sharing of light can happen in our everyday lives too. We ended our show this past Shabbat afternoon by asking people to think about how they might share their light – what wishes they would make on the candlelight of the Chanukah menorah. We have a few more months of winter ahead of us, but hopefully, we can find that light inside ourselves, the light that Joseph shared with Pharaoh, that our ancestors used to scare away the dark, and that God first granted on our new world. As we say goodbye to 2009 and hello to 2010, may we all find and share the light that dwells within each of us.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

2 groups become allies: Storah Telling partners with Educational Alliance
by Judith Messina
Dec. 13, 2009

While most big nonprofits are likely to outlast the grim economy, smaller organizations now have to create new operational models to weather the increasingly tough fundraising environment.
When the recession hit, Storah Telling—a Jewish organization that creates educational programs around Torah stories—was already struggling to raise money as it shifted its mission from performance to education. The implosion of Bernard Madoff's investment empire landed another blow to the tiny nonprofit, killing $500,000 in support from foundations and individuals caught in Madoff's Ponzi scheme. Storah Telling cut its budget by 50% and laid off four people, nearly half its staff, including the director of development.

Fortunately, the organization had a well-heeled ally in the Educational Alliance, with which it had collaborated in the past. The two organizations began to discuss their potential synergies and ended up with a formal partnership while still remaining independent. Today, Storah Telling has its headquarters at the Educational Alliance's 14th Street Y, saving it $65,000 annually in rent. It gets office, training and rehearsal space, while the Y gets staff training and programs for its early childhood education center.

“We're calling it a strategic alliance,” says Storah Telling founder and Executive Director Amichai Lau-Lavie. “It should be seen as a model [for others].”

"Storahtelling" Brings Torah to Theatrical Life in Tampa Bay
by Jon Adam Ross
Dec. 15, 2009

Widely acclaimed Jewish theatre artist Jon Adam Ross will bring Torah to life this weekend through “Storahtelling” at Congregation Rodeph Sholom and Congregation Beth Am in Tampa, as well as Temple B’nai Israel in Clearwater. Through storytelling, character pieces and dramatic performance, Ross will tell the story about Joseph and Pharaoh's dreams (Parsha Miketz) at all three congregations.

Ross, a graduate of New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, is a founding company member of Storahtelling, which makes ancient stories and traditions accessible for new generations through dramatic performance.

“I’ll be bringing theater into the sanctuary – providing a tool for accessing the text of the Torah,” said Ross. “A lot of people feel a disconnect between the ritual of reading Torah and their own lives. Prayer is personal, but this is a world we don’t identify with. Storahtelling tries to bridge that gap -performance gives you permission to access and own the stories of our tradition. You're no longer just looking at a book of text in your lap. You're actively engaged in the story.”

Ross also travels the country teaching Jewish educators how to use Storahtelling techniques with their students, and he will be teaching those techniques to Tampa Bay Jewish educators during a special training session this weekend as well. He estimates that more than 50 synagogues around the country have embraced Storahtelling techniques in their classrooms and services.

“A generation from now, kids learning through Storahtelling today can become people who do this as part of congregational life,” Ross said.

Congregation Beth Am is one of the local congregations welcoming Ross.

“Our job as Jewish leaders and Jewish educators is to try to make the Torah come alive, to show that it's not just an old book of stories, but a sacred book which helps us understand our own stories, and our own lives,” said Rabbi Jason Rosenberg of Congregation Beth Am. “Storahtelling has been building a reputation as masters of just that. They build Jewish identity and knowledge through hands-on, fun, interactive, creative programs.”

“It’s about engaging the congregation,” said Judy Van Der Stelt, the Director of Education for Congregation Rodeph Sholom, which is also welcoming Ross to its sanctuary. “I’m so excited for our community to experience Storahtelling because it’s visible, it’s auditory, and it’s live. Just like going to the theater.”

Amichai Lau-Lavie, who founded Storahtelling in 1999, believes that Storahtelling events translate the Jewish legacy into accessible, exciting conversations, connecting Jews of all ages and backgrounds to the core values of Judaism.

”Storahtelling bridges the gap between modern Jews and ancient Judaism by focusing on the essential building blocks of Jewish identity: the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, and the rituals that honor these inherited stories and enable us to wrestle with their modern meaning,” said Lau-Lavie.

Ross is currently on tour with his new solo show, "G-d of Our Fathers," in which he plays all the members of a fictional Jewish family living through a generation of assimilation. And he has performed his first solo show, "Walking in Memphis: The Life of a Southern Jew," Off-Broadway and around the globe.

For more information about Ross and Storahtelling, please visit and

-LMPK staff

To view the original article, click here

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

“Harmful Side Effects May Occur” Maven in Fanwood, NJ
By Vicky Glikin

How lucky can a girl get? Not only did I have the opportunity to write and perform my very first start-to-finish show with a terrific partner, fellow cantorial student Joshua Breitzer, but we also got to perform the show twice! 2 for the price of 1 = AWESOME. Our Maven for Parsha Toldot “Harmful Side Effects May Occur” first premiered on Monday, November 16 at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC). On Friday November 20, Joshua and I brought the same show to Temple Sholom in Fanwood, NJ, a 230 family Reform congregation where I serve as the Student Cantor.

As you might have read in Joshua’s reflection on our HUC performance, our Maven centered on a restless Jacob the night before he reunited with Esau. The bullseye: how can we take care of our loved ones while pursuing our individual visions? While the show was written specifically for the HUC community, Joshua and I kept the audience of Temple Sholom in mind throughout our creative process. Originally, we played with the idea of having different bullseye questions for the two communities. However, in the end we decided that the same bullseye would be relevant and enticing to both communities. Thus, with the exception of minor details, such as the examples we provided for calling up the aliyot, we performed an almost identical show twice. Or, did we?

While the show was basically the same both times, the experience of doing it twice demonstrated to me that the Mavens (or, Mavens-In-Training in our case) write and perform the show, but it is ultimately the members of the audience who morph and shape the tale into its final form. While we guide the stretch and provide pointers for the direction of the conversation, the overall affect of the stretch and the show itself are hinged on the goodwill, investment, and creativity of the audience. Thus, the show and the lessons gathered from it by the audience were different at Temple Sholom than they had been just a couple of days earlier at HUC. Some of the pleasant surprises from the Temple Sholom performance included the unabashed participation from about ten sixth graders, who were present at the performance, as well as the very deep insights from the adult audience members. Regardless of age, most of the audience members were experiencing Storahtelling for the first time and they absolutely loved experiencing Torah in such an exciting new way. What an honor to be a part of their first such journey and discovery!

Mavens-in-the-Making at Hebrew Union College: Last Minute Tweaks
By Josh Breitzer

On Monday, November 16, Vicky Glikin and I had the wonderful opportunity to present a Maven for our classmates and teachers at Hebrew Union College in New York during that morning's t'filah. Our take on Parashat Toldot, "Harmful Side Effects May Occur," centers on a restless Jacob the night before reuniting with Esau. He recalls his early childhood, how he craved his father's attention and how unappreciated he felt, and ultimately relives the infamous birthright purchase, knowing that he must face Esau in the morning for the first time in years. The bullseye: how do we take care of those close to us while in pursuit of our individual dreams? We were blessed with the support of the HUC administration, some extremely generous sh'lichei tzibbur (one of whom was a fellow Maven-in-the-Making), and the presence of our friend and teacher Jake Goodman. None of us anticipated the presence of a large group of visiting out-of-state synagogue delegates, but we relished the opportunity to include our surprise guests in the maven. They participated eagerly in the aliyot and in the stretch, contributing as much as (if not more than) the resident HUC community.

One thing that surprised me during the rehearsal process was that despite all the hours we had set aside, we were still tweaking the show right up until that very morning. While I was never really able to divorce myself from the script, I still found opportunities to "play" within the characterization of Jacob, improvising whenever the moment seemed to allow for it. We also had to improvise when the sh'lichei tzibbur moved right from returning the Torah to the 'Aleinu, skipping right over our chatimah. Fortunately, some split-second communication allowed for us to offer the chatimah before the Mourners' Kaddish. I was very grateful to have worked with such flexible service leaders, and came away from the experience even more certain of the need for good communication - before, during, and after the maven!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Living to Hope: “Oh, Well” Maven in NJ & NY
November 14, 2009
By Jake Goodman

Just over a week ago, I traveled to Temple Shalom in Succasunna, NJ for a Maven Shabbaton Weekend. I presented a Solo-Maven Torah Reading Ritual of Parshat Chayei Sarah called “Oh, Well” and a Meet the Maven workshop for a bunch of adults. The week before, I had performed the same Maven at the 14th Street Y in NYC. The story was the same, of course, but the performances were very different because the gig in NYC also featured musician Justin Wedes and was geared toward multi/non-denominational families with children ages 2-5, while the gig in NJ was geared toward a Reform congregation of people ages 6+. There is a lot that I could say about both of these gigs and the shows, but there was one very sweet moment I want to share.

On Shabbat afternoon at Temple Shalom in Succasunna, NJ, I facilitated the Meet the Maven workshop for a lovely adults, most of whom were my parents age or older. Secret: this workshop is actually my favorite part of the Maven Shabbaton Weekend (even more than the performance) because it allows me intimate and deep interaction with members of the community about the power of story in our own lives, the history of the Maven, and it leaves us with a mandate to actually take the responsibility upon ourselves to do the work of making meaning of story through translation.

Every time we lead this workshop, we include the infamous “Shema Exercise.” This exercise has been a StorahStaple for years (long before I joined the company), and often ends up being a very powerful experience. In short, we engage people in a word-by-word translation of the Shema, the proclamation/prayer that so many of us are told is the most important piece of dogma in Judaism: there is one god. The purpose of the workshop is to prove to people that anybody can translate, that there is not such thing as a literal translation of any text, that we can find deeper meaning that we are perhaps given.

Milton was one of the workshop participants. Milton is approximately 83 years old, and a lovely, genial person. 80 minutes into the workshop, just after we had completed the Sheme Exercise, I began to do my standard wrap up: stories matter, we have to do the work to make these texts meaningful to us, we have to find how and where these texts try to make us wrestle with bigger/difficult ideas. Just as I was about to say my goodbye, Milton raised his hand and said, “Jake, this has been eye opening for me, but I’m curious. How does this help you?”

I stopped, caught off guard. Normally when teaching, I do my best to leave my personal beliefs slightly obscure so as not to influence other people’s opinions (except when I want to influence other people’s opinions). Also, despite everything, I am not a particularly religious person.

So I began giving what is, for me, a standard answer: “Well, this helps me because it helps me see that there is no such thing as a literal understanding of any text…” As I was speaking, I could feel that I was losing Milton, as well as the rest of the participants. So I stopped. “Maybe I’m not understanding your question, Milton. How does the Shema help you?”

He said, “I say it every morning when I wake up and every night when I go to bed. I said it before I had my hip surgery, and before I get on airplanes. It is a rock for me.” And then he looked at me, expectantly. At risk, I felt, was all my authenticity. At risk was any impact this workshop might have, and all of Storahtelling’s programming, because if I am a fake, who cares?

So I responded in a way that I do not always: transparently, with full disclosure. “I hear you and what you said is very beautiful to me. But I’m 30 years old and I’m just not there yet. The Shema is not a rock for me right now. I’m not where you are in terms of belief in god, in general. I hope to be, but I’m not there yet.” There was silence and then, I could just feel all the tension break. They seemed relieved at my answer. They liked that I owned up (or down) to my age, without being self-effacing, just honestly. And I felt relieved, because I spoke my truth while I was trying to be professional.

This was a lesson to me, a challenge: this work we engage ourselves in is rooted in exciting theory, but ultimately, the main question is: How can I/we use this in our lives? If I feel no commitment to the actual message—only on the methodology of understanding the message—what is the point? Why am I doing this?

Milton, I thank you.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Mavens in DC: Identifying the Other
By Daliya Karnofsky

Two weekends ago, David Schiller and I went to Washington D.C. to perform Parshat Vayera: Child's Play for two very special communities. We had two incredible experiences. Our first performance was on Friday night for Gay and Lesbian Outreach and Engagement of the Washington DCJCC (GLOE), in collaboration with Bet Mishpachah Congregation. The Saturday morning performance was for the Jewish Foundation for Group Homes (JFGH), in collaboration with GLOE.

We adapted the story of the exile of Ishmael and Hagar to become something deeply personal to these communities.

Ishmael and Hagar live with Sarah, Abraham, and Isaac as one family, until one day Sarah sees something pass between the boys that she does not like and this is the straw that breaks the camel's back. Sarah insists that Abraham break the family up and send Ishmael and Hagar into the desert on their own, leaving Isaac as Abraham's one and only heir.

When David and I first received the script for Child's Play, the main characters were Sarah and Abraham, and the focus of the story was on whatever it was that passed between Ishmael and Isaac that incited Sarah to take such a dramatic step. The word used in the Torah is "metzachek", and has many different meanings: from playing to laughing to fighting and even fooling around.

But for these two communities, we decided it was not important to decipher what exactly was meant by this word and what exactly transpired between the two brothers. What was more important was the aftermath of this crucial moment. The breaking up of a family, and one half of the family being made to feel like the "other". The notion that not everyone belongs in a family, and must be sent on their way because of their "other"ness. We chose to highlight the voices of Ishmael and Hagar; to feel what it was they felt as they were cast out into the desert. This is a topic that is viscerally relevant to the two communities for which we performed.

As Alex Greenbaum (a lay leader for GLOE) stated as the last point in a riveting discussion that could have gone on all night with the GLOE and Bet Mishpachah communities, the "other" in this story is exactly equivalent to a queer family today. A family that is not good enough to be a family. That is told that because of who they are, they are not fit to be part of a family. This point summed up a lot of the emotions that had been coming out that night, and Ishmael and Hagar's voices were poignantly heard.

Performing this point of view for the members of the group homes was equally touching. The families formed in the group homes are certainly not traditional and are made up of people who have lived their lives as the "other". Our audience recognized that what Sarah did was wrong, as they empathized with the importance of inclusion and the different definitions a family can have.

All in all, mission accomplished. The voice of the "other" was heard; the notion of a non-traditional family was explored. We wanted to give these communities the opportunity to voice this for themselves as well, and that they did. The discussions we had during and after the Maven were eye-opening and encouraging, and will continue for many years to come. Hopefully with very different endings.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Learning to Get Along
JCCA Conference, Ramat Gan, Israel, 11/4/09
The Birth of Laughter: Parshat Vayera, B’reshit 21:6-10
By Annie Lewis

The word L’Garesh! is spray-painted in red letters on a stucco building near Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station. I am on the way to a maven demo, about to shout that word, in translation, in its first appearance in Torah. It means to banish, to expel, to exile, to divorce, to deport. The neighborhood of Tel Aviv’s Central Bus Station is home to many foreign workers, from the Philippines, Nigeria, Romania, Ghana, Ukraine. Last Sunday, the decision came down from the Prime Minister’s office that the children of foreign workers in Israel illegally are to be deported at the end of the school year. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported:

“Yishai, the Shas Party leader, has been leading the call for deportation. Yishai claims that allowing the children to remain and giving them citizenship could damage the Jewish character of the state.”

In our Torah cycle, we are telling stories of Sarah, the First Lady of the House of Abraham. I had the privilege of assuming Sarah’s voice at last week’s maven as Israeli maven, Eran Kraus, read the words from the Torah and led the crowd in discussion. In Parshat Vayera, God sends Sarah into bouts of laughter, informing her that she will give birth to a bouncing baby boy. At ninety years of age, she expects to be in a nursing home, but nursing?

Our maven took place at the conference center at K’far Ha-Maccabiah, the original Jewish Olympic village. Executives from Jewish Community Centers all over the world were gathered to build relationships and share best practices. Our audience included people from Argentina, Russia, India, Estonia, France and Colorado. We invited them to the Weaning Feast of Sarah’s miraculous first-born son, Yitzhak (Isaac/ One who will laugh).

Sarah is cracking jokes, and getting fahklempt about Yitzhak getting older, and the crowd is singing siman tov! All of the sudden, Sarah panics. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Avraham’s first son, Yishmael, m’tzahkek, an ambiguous word which might mean to play, to mock, to fool around, to rough-house, to abuse.

“Get out! I want them out. Out of my home - that woman (Hagar) and her son. Avraham, Get them out!” Sarah orders. She claims that Yishmael is endangering the safety of her son, Yitzhak.

Eran asked our audience, full of parents, and decision-makers in the work place, to step into Avraham’s shoes. What would they do if presented with such a demand? One man, from Israel, looked to the verses and pointed out that the Torah’s original letters describing Yishmael’s m’tzahek, say nothing about Yitzhak. Becoming the Sarah of our Maven, I have nearly forgotten that this voice of hers is built from layers of midrash; sages seeking to justify the severity of her demand to banish this other mother and her child into the wilderness. Perhaps our rabbinic predecessors didn’t want to see Sarah’s decision as rash or jealous, or based solely on concern about sharing the resources of her home and husband.

Another woman in the audience mentioned that if she were Avraham, she would ask the boys what happened. Eran asked the others whether they, too, wanted to hear another side of the story. As decision-makers at home or at work, what do they do when a conflict arises between different people under their care or supervision? Eran told a story about a time he and his brother came to their father hitting each other and yelling, “He started it! No, he started it!” His father slapped them both, simply saying, “Get along.” The sting of the slap and the truth of those words are with him today.

We ended our sample maven with a dedication to a different Yitzhak. November 4th was the fourteenth anniversary of the murder of Yitzhak Rabin, a tragic casualty in the continuing conflict between the children of Yitzhak and Yishmael, the sons of Sarah and Hagar. We closed with a prayer for shalom bayit, peace in the House of Abraham, for all of his children. With all our sides of the story, may we learn to get along. May we laugh together and heal the rifts of our past.

This short and bittersweet telling of Torah, storah-style, was received with open arms by audience members from around the world! I am grateful to Eran for the experience and to Bruce Shaffer, our hevruta from Boulder, Co, for his support.

Oseh Shalom Bimromav, Hu Ya’aseh Shalom Aleinu, V’al Kol Yisrael, V’al Kol Yoshvei Tevel.

May the one who makes peace in the heights, make peace for all of us, all of Israel, and all us dwellers of this whole wide world.