Jerusalem, Israel - Oct. 20, 2021 - This week thousands of people will head to Kever Rachel to pray on the yahrzeit of Rachel Imenu. Last year during Corona, the annual remembrances were disrupted as the world came to a stop during the pandemic.
Twenty years ago, as the Second Intifada rocked Israel with suicide bombers blowing up buses, a group of women got together to form the "Raise Your Spirits Summer Stock Company" later renamed "Raise Your Spirit Theater"(RYST). They not only raised their own spirits but have performed for more than 50,000 women and girls in packed audiences over the years.
The twelfth and most recent production of "REBECCA! Mother of Two Dynasties," written by Toby Klein Greenwald and Tamar Kamins, with music by Mitch Clyman, premiered at the Heichal Hatarbut Gush Etzion and was performed at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center Jerusalem, Israel from June 13- 21, 2021.
The story begins with Rivka’s birth and the birth of her twin children, Yaakov and Eisav, with a Traveling Troubadour played by Franny Waisman tying the chapters together. Female actresses play all the biblical characters. The text is based on selections from Bereshis 21-33.
Through terror attacks, wars, and military operations the shows went on. Twice the theater troupe traveled in bullet-proof buses to Gush Katif to perform. Then a pandemic shut down the world. But the women of RYST, after holding auditions using video clips, rehearsed online during the summer of 2020.
Klein Greenwald reflects on the difficulties of the past year, to BJL." Working with this cast during this year of COVID has been incredible and it is no less than a miracle that we were able to perform in June and are now returning in the autumn. We just pray that things get better from now on for Am Yisrael and for the world."
The actors, from the youngest Nachala Orzarowski to the oldest Lessa Roskin, are back for encore performances.
Shayna Levine-Hefetz, who plays Devorah the handmaiden of Rebecca and is also on stage as a member of the Ensemble, made aliyah in July 2015 from Maryland. The family lived in Baltimore for 13 years and Silver Spring for 2 years before their aliyah, however, they still consider themselves from Baltimore and are huge Ravens fans, watching every game live.
Levine-Hefetz tells BJL "BH the kids have flourished here: Rena is 20, recently finished two years of Sherut Leumi, got married in August to another Oleh from Baltimore, and started Bar Ilan University in October. Nili is 19 in her 2nd year of Sherut Leumi and Moshe Tzvi is a student at Machon Lev high school. We have also welcomed Chagai to our family - he is 3.
BJL: This is your first role in a 'Raise Your Spirits' performance; when and why did you decide to get involved with REBECCA, since you are a very busy woman?
SLH: I have always loved musical theater and began performing with groups from the age of 6. In 2013 an infection damaged my vocal cords leaving me unable to speak. After 2 years of vocal therapy in the US before making aliyah, I was able to speak (although I sounded hoarse) but could still not sing. The therapist told me to keep doing the exercises in the hope that the scar tissue on my vocal cords would stretch and maybe I would be able to sing again (although this injury is generally not something one recovers from - it took Julie Andrews off the stage - she hoped that because of a connective tissue disorder that I have, maybe the scar tissue could stretch). After years of hard work, my ability to sing returned and I was so excited to be able to perform again. I have long been a fan of RYST - I saw my first show, "Count the Stars" on my pilot trip in January 2015 and loved it. It has been my dream since seeing that show to perform with them, and being a part of REBECCA was a realization of that dream. RYST combines my love of musical theater and education - bringing Tanach texts to life on the stage, encouraging the audience to think about the stories of the Torah in a new and exciting way - and I feel privileged to have joined the company. Being a part of this performance has allowed me the opportunity to get to know an amazing group of women who share my passions and has given me tremendous support as we have gone through an incredibly difficult year of challenges between the corona and my son's prolonged illness. I am not sure how I would have made it through this past year and a half with it.
BJL: Tells us about the challenge of rehearsals during the year of a pandemic.
SLH: Wow, rehearsing on Zoom was certainly a challenge. It was impossible to rehearse singing parts that included more than one voice at a time because of the delay - although we did our best. We learned new recording programs to try to enhance our ability to practice multiple parts without being able to sing together in person and the show came together in an amazing way. When we were finally able to come together in person, although we were practicing with masks on, the ability to sing together with other women and hear the harmonies blend so beautifully is an experience I will never forget. Music has a unique ability to heal the heart and soul and bring people together which was so needed after months of separation due to corona - and is still so necessary as we navigate wave after wave of corona.
BJL: These encore performances are to be performed in the Gush, Jerusalem, and now also Beit Shemesh, what from your experience would you like to share with our readers?
SLH: REBECCA will give you the opportunity to delve into these very timely parshios of Sefer Breishis - to learn about the stories of Avraham, Elazar, Rivka, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Eisav, Rachel, Leah, Bilha, Zilpa, and others, in a fun and engaging way. The script is extremely well researched and there are midrashim included that will encourage the audience to think about these complex characters and the choices they had to make in a totally new way. I went back and learned some of the text again after being a part of the play! I play the part of Devorah, who we only hear about in the text when she passes away - Rashi gives us insight into who she was and the role she played in the lives of our Avos and Imahos. The play taught me so much more about her story which was really fascinating. In the encore performance, I am also playing the part of Rachel Imenu which is especially meaningful around the time of her yahrzeit. I have always felt a special connection to Rachel, as she is the mother who cries for her children in golus and both of my father's grandmothers were named Rachel. We gave the middle name Rachel to our second daughter as she was born in the height of the second intifada when Rachel was certainly crying out to Hashem to bring an end to the suffering of the Jewish People in Israel. Being able to bring her story to life on the stage has been a privilege and an honor."
The photo essay is from the June performance in Jerusalem, Israel.