Arts No Longer Plays Second Fiddle

More than 10 times during Rena Ahdut’s stay at Solomon Schechter overnight camp in Olympia, Wash., last summer, her mother made the long drive from Tacoma to bring her home for dance rehearsals.

“It was kind of hard to come and go all the time,” said Rena, 14, who dances ballet, tap and jazz 35 hours a week at the Dance Theater Northwest.

For Rena, missing weeks of dance rehearsal was unthinkable, but so was missing out on the quintessential Jewish youth experience of summer camp.

This summer, Rena hopes to have that conflict resolved for her for at least two weeks when she attends T’hila, a new program at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley that integrates a Jewish camping experience with an arts experience molded for young, talented artists who are as serious about their craft as Rena.

“If a child is incredibly talented as a Jewish artist, she can got to Interlochen [Center for the Arts in Michigan] or Tanglewood [Institute in Massachusetts], or she can go to Jewish camp, and her experience in terms of arts is not going to be at the same level, she will not be pushed and challenged in the same way,” said Shana Starobin, program director for T’hila. “We see the need in the Jewish community to create an opportunity for those kids who are really exceptional to explore their art in a Jewish context.”

The creation of actor/singer/songwriter Danny Maseng, T’hila will bring together a faculty of highly accomplished Jewish artists in drama, dance, visual arts, music and creative writing with high schoolers who want to make art a life pursuit.

Being dedicated to both the arts and Judaism poses enormous challenges are presented: Rena and her family, for example, decided to dance on Saturdays and to focus on kabbalat Shabbat on Friday nights.

“I haven’t been as involved in my synagogue as I wanted to, because I don’t have time,” Rena said. “I just want to be around Jewish kids in the summer, since I’m not really around them very often here.”

But with a $1,400 price tag for T’hila, which as a pilot program is 12 days at the end of August this year, Tovah Ahdut isn’t sure she’ll be able to send her daughter.

For families who pay for dance or drama or art lessons, along with Hebrew school or day school tuition and synagogue membership, costs become prohibitive. Limited scholarships are available for T’hila, which costs about the same as other arts camps and Jewish camps. About 15 kids have been accepted to the 40 slots available.

David Goodman, a 17-year-old writer and musician from Encinitas, Calif., who is attending T’hila this summer, looks forward to combining his Judaism with his art.

“No two things are more important to me than Judaism and the arts, and I haven’t had the opportunity to put those together and to focus on both those things as one unit,” he said.

At T’hila, which is Hebrew for Psalm, Jewish texts, for instance, might become the jumping-off point for artistic expression, and artistic expression will be framed in Jewish terms.

That kind of total integration separates T’hila from BIMA: The Berkshire Institute of Music and Arts in Massachusetts, a new program where about 40 Jewish high schoolers have already signed up for a summer of music, theater, dance, writing or visual arts instruction and Jewish learning at Williams College in Massachusetts.

While some aspects of the program will combine Judaism and the arts, “What we’re really looking for is to create opportunities for the two to intersect, but not necessarily to construct a synthesized experience,” said Rabbi Daniel Lehmann, executive director of BIMA, which is a joint project of the Gann Academy-The New Jewish High School of Greater Boston, where Lehmann is headmaster, and the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel.

Both BIMA and T’hila are nondenominational and pluralistic; both will have kosher food and be respectful of Shabbat.

Maseng hopes that, by next summer, T’hila will have a full two sessions, and that the program becomes the cornerstone for an arts institute.

Brandeis is already working with a donor to build a year-round center for the arts on its property, where artists can gather for retreats, the community can come to learn and multidisciplinary performances can be produced.

“Brandeis was founded for young people to explore their Jewish identity in the beautiful setting that we have and to explore it through a number of different avenues,” said Helen Zukin, board chair at Brandeis. “Art, music, drama and dance were always important to the Brandeis experience and part of the mission since the beginning.”

Maseng sees a national Jewish art institute that focuses on participation, not passive viewing, as a way to remedy a problem in the perception of the arts in the Jewish community, where art is what happens between salad and dessert, he said.

And the place to start, he said, is with the youth.

“I’m not there to teach the kids to be religious or to tell them how to lead their lives, but I am here to impress upon them that they will never again look upon Judaism as irrelevant and Jewish art as trivial or having nothing to say to them in their lives or to teach them about their personal, current condition in life,” Maseng said. “And if we do that, that is a success.”

For more information on T’hila, call (805) 404-5209 or
visit For information on BIMA call (781) 642-6800 or
visit .