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PresenTenseLA 2014: Challenging the Status Quo

This post is a part of a series highlighting the social entrepreneurial ventures that each of the 2014 PresenTenseLA Fellows will be unveiling at Launch Night tonight. The Fellows were given the prompt “What’s so Jewish about your project?” and over the course of the series we will be sharing their answers and exploring the very nature of Jewish change-making. Today we are highlighting PTLA Fellows Aaron Henne – artistic director of theatre dybbuk – and Lee Chernotsky – founder of ROSIES (Removing Obstacles, Supporting Independence, Enriching Spaces). Each of their ventures asks us to reexamine traditional ideas in order to create a more enriching Jewish community.

What’s So Jewish About theatre dybbuk?

theatre dybbuk illuminates our universal humanity by creating provocative theatrical experiences based on Jewish myths, folklore and history.

All of our work is created through a collaborative process, most often involving cast members, scholars, designers and consultants.

This process is based upon the idea that collaborators will bring a wealth of worthwhile questions to the piece, and thus make it stronger. When we gather around a table, for three to twelve months, the value and meaning of the in-process script, and any supporting research, including liturgical commentary, documentary footage and excerpts from scholarly works, is debated.

Much like our Talmud, this requires that a wide variety of voices come together to question the work’s content and to explore the ways in which a myriad number of vocabularies can contribute to it. We treat everything as valuable but nothing as precious, turning every aspect inside out until we reach the center of the center.

Maybe such relentless investigation, filled with conflict and debate, is what makes theater dybbuk Jewish.

Our piece, “Cave…A Dance for Lilith” investigated the evolution of world conflict by looking at Lilith folklore and Goddess mythology. This co-production, with L.A. Contemporary Dance Company, attracted many people who are connected to Jewish history and culture. It, however, also brought in those, Jewish and not, who just wanted to see some radical performance, as well as those with a deep interest in Goddess worship and pre-monotheistic belief systems. The audience members were as diverse a group as I’d ever seen, from many different religious and cultural backgrounds. This presentation, therefore, enabled a conversation to occur that was particularly Jewish, but non-exclusive and open to all. The show fulfilled, in whatever small and incomplete way, on the Jewish ideal of Tikkun Olam by bringing together disparate pieces into one temporarily unified whole.

Maybe believing in the possibility of perfection, while knowing we will never fully achieve it, is what makes theater dybbuk Jewish.

In 2013, Valley Beth Shalom and Rabbi Ed Feinstein asked that we develop and present a full-length work that would serve as the entire Selichot service.

The rehearsal and creation period proved challenging in that we had to keep asking these questions:

  • How will the congregation know its role and is it important that they do so?
  • What state do we wish to leave the congregation in?
  • Is there a call to action, an expectation that the congregation will behave in some specific way when they leave the shul, in response to our performance?

In order to deal with these queries, I turned to Jewish prayer service in general, with a particular focus on the one with which many of us most often participate, the Shabbat morning ritual. I was inspired to see how it moves from engagement with self (the morning blessings) through a process which takes us to engagement with our surrounding community (the Torah Service and all the family events often contained therein) to finally becoming ready to take all the we have learned into the greater world; even some of the challenging or seemingly exclusionary language within the service can be interpreted as a call to see what is true and what is false in society and to help others distinguish between those things which cause harm and those which serve.

I came to realize that, with any production, or educational program that we offer, we are “performing,” quite literally, a function, which is nothing less than to be a vessel for realization and transformation of some sort. The ways in which this occurs may differ depending on the situation, but the need to look outward at the congregation, the audience, is ever present.

Maybe turning our gaze so that it takes in the world, asking how we might be of service to it, is what makes theater dybbuk Jewish.

By PresenTenseLA Fellow Aaron Henne

What’s So Jewish About ROSIES?

According to research conducted by the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles, it is estimated there are currently 55,000 Jews with intellectual/developmental disabilities in Los Angeles, of which 25,000 – or 45% – are children 0 – 18.  While many might be capable of living independent adult lives, there is nonetheless a considerable and growing increase in those with more severe needs, such as those with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), who may need care and individualized support for the rest of their lives.  Currently, there are inadequate programs and services for adults with disabilities in both the Jewish community and in greater Los Angeles.

The Jewish Community in Los Angeles has made significant strides in the last several years to provide information and resources to support Jews with disabilities and their families. Organizations and programs like HaMercaz, The Friendship Circle, Our Space, Etta/Ohel, Nes Gadol at Vista Del Mar, and others raise awareness, provide services, and help Jewish individuals and families understand how to overcome barriers to facilitate their meaningful participation and involvement in the Jewish community. However, this is only the beginning.

Approximately four out of five individuals with disabilities are either unemployed or under-employed, and they experience poverty at a rate twice that of the general population. Not because they cannot work, they are denied the opportunity to work at jobs they are qualified to do. This is morally intolerable. As Jews, we are taught to address civil rights issues like these head on, “If there be among you a person with needs, you shall not harden your heart, but you shall surely open your hand.” (Deuteronomy 15:7)

The Jewish community must realize that Jews with disabilities are a minority within a minority. The Talmud teaches us that, “All of Israel is responsible for one another” (Shavuot 39a), It is our responsibility to not only educate and train Jews of all abilities, but also look beyond by creating jobs and supporting businesses that provide people of all abilities with the opportunity to be gainfully employed to achieve greater levels of independence.

A job is important for people with disabilities for the same reason it’s important to those who are not as severely impacted by their life circumstances. Inherently Jewish at her core, ROSIE’S is designed to provide opportunities for currently dependent adults with disabilities to own businesses and/or work alongside people dedicated to removing obstacles that prevent those adults from obtaining and retaining meaningful employment. According to the leading American Jewish philanthropist supporting individuals with disabilities Jay Ruderman, “Such training efforts are crucial, but unless the jobs are made available, frustration – and a tragic waste of human potential – is inevitable.”

Together we can build a more inclusive and self-sufficient Jewish community in Los Angeles and beyond by supporting ROSIE’S ventures, our employees, and our dedicated staff and volunteers who strive every day to learn from our sages by recognizing, “It is not up to you to complete the work, yet you are not free to desist from it” (Pirkei Avot 2:21).

By PresenTenseLA Fellow Lee Chernotsky

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