September 24, 2018

Jewish Women’s Theatre brings millennial stories to the stage

Kyla Schoer in “The Space Between.” Photo by Sally Hughes

The nonprofit Jewish Women’s Theatre (JWT) was founded in 2008 to bring attention to voices within the Jewish community that don’t always get heard. Its plays have challenged stereotypes, often negative, of Jewish women or Sephardic Jews. Now, the company is turning its focus on the oft-derided millennial generation.

As the troupe approaches its 10th season, JWT artistic director Ronda Spinak said it felt right to “reach out to a younger population to share the wisdom that we’ve gotten over the last nine years about how to create sustainable theater that focuses on Jewish content.”

JWT has launched NEXT @ The Braid, a new arts council of artistic, theater-minded millennials with the help of a $150,000 Cutting Edge grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles. The funds allowed 12 fellows to spend nine months developing a Jewish-themed salon-style series in a theater production called “The Space Between.”

The show will be performed on June 21 at The Braid, JWT’s theater in Santa Monica, and will travel to a downtown Los Angeles loft, Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood and Westwood Village Synagogue on June 17, 22 and 25, respectively.

The show’s theme emerged from the tense political climate surrounding the 2016 presidential election and a conversation about the lack of dialogue between different groups. But the show also addresses the issues that 20-somethings in Los Angeles are thinking about.

“We are putting our finger on the pulse of the fact that we are millennials and we see the world — politics, relationships — differently,” said NEXT fellow Amirose Eisenbach, 31.

“The Space Between” is an hourlong play comprising about a dozen stories and songs submitted by members of the public and edited by the fellows. The stories range from humorous to serious. The characters include a young woman losing her mom to cancer, a woman who dates a man and learns he’s transgender, a woman who laments the difficulty of being “always the bridesmaid,” and a funny piece about a hookup gone wrong.

“We all have fears and dreams and feel like the outsider sometimes, but we’re all connected on that level of just wanting to feel like we’re not alone in this world,” Eisenbach said.

Another story is about a teenage girl who goes to a Torah dedication at an Orthodox cousin’s house in Lakewood, N.J., but feels like she can’t look cool wearing long sleeves and a long dress.

“She comes to understand that her cousin is the same age as her, though she wears things that are different and has things that are different, prays in different ways, but at the core they’re still the same, struggling to become adults, struggling to figure out who they are,” Spinak said.

Only some of the show’s content is Jewish-themed. Ten of the 12 fellows are Jewish. The show’s message is meant to be universal and speak to audiences of all backgrounds.

The salon-style show is stripped down, with five actors and no props or costume changes. The actors are dressed in black and sit on stools with their scripts. The intention is for the text and the acting to take center stage.

The fellowship offered training in how to adapt material to the stage and how to cast, direct and produce a theatrical event. All the fellows had input in the selection of the material, and each had a specific focus, ranging from directing to producing to marketing the show.

The program was created to give participants the skills needed to create meaningful work and advance their careers in theater, film and television. It’s also meant to help offset the widespread reduction in arts funding at schools and cultural institutions.

“A lot of younger people are working either one-on-one or in small groups or individually, and so they’re a lot more isolated,” said JWT Managing Director Sharon Landau. “Creating this arts council was an opportunity to create this community where they can collaborate with their peers and have both financial support and mentorship to make theater that’s relevant to their generation.”

The fellows in the program have a variety of experience, from acting in film, television, theater and web series, to hosting podcasts, playwriting and working as a singer-songwriter.

Eisenbach is a writer and producer who has worked at Warner Bros. and Fox Interactive Media, and she launched and ran the independent film division at AMC Theatres. She now has her own event and film company, Radiant J Productions.

“I went out on my own about two years ago because I wanted to make content that really mattered — that not just entertained but that really had social impact,” she said.

Another NEXT fellow, Andrew Fromer, 27, studied theater at UC Santa Barbara and worked for a theater group in Israel. He has acted in feature films, and he edits, directs and hosts his own podcast on the entertainment industry.

“What did I hope to gain? Just the crazy amount of skills that it takes to produce anything,” Fromer said. “Nobody really can concretely say what a producer actually does, and the reason is because a producer does everything,”

JWT’s audience members tend to be over the age of 50. Incorporating millennials into the theater’s creative process may bring in younger people who want to see their stories told onstage.

“We are about giving voice to various kinds of Jews and how we’re Jewish in the world, from various ethnic backgrounds to religious observance,” Spinak said. “So I’m proud and happy that we could put forth a millennial show that will debunk some of the stereotypes and myths surrounding this generation.”

“The Space Between” will be performed June 21 at The Braid in Santa Monica and travel to three venues across the Los Angeles area from June 14–25. For tickets and more information, visit this article at

High Holy Days: What’s NEXT for Birthright

High Holiday map screenshot. Courtesy of NEXT.

On Aug. 5, the Birthright Israel alumni organization NEXT launched its 2013 High Holy Days initiative. It features an interactive, nationwide map of services and events — including learning opportunities, dinners and break-the-fasts — as well as a first-time offering of resources and small subsidies for people willing to host Rosh Hashanah meals and Yom Kippur break-the-fasts. 

“Taglit-Birthright participants have returned from their summer trips — joining the hundreds of thousands of alumni from past years — with a personal connection to Judaism, Israel and the Jewish people. Now is the time to build on that connection and help make Jewish opportunities and communities more accessible,” Morlie Levin, CEO of NEXT, said in a statement. 

“We’ve found that Birthright Israel alumni are particularly interested in celebrating holidays with their friends, and the High Holy Days initiative offers them the opportunity to both create these experiences themselves and connect to community events they find meaningful.”

Based around the idea that there are ways to keep participants of Taglit-Birthright’s free 10-day trips to Israel interested in Judaism and the Jewish state after they return home, NEXT helps connect alumni through events, subsidized Shabbat meals and other programs. The organization has an alumni community of more than 300,000 individuals, according to its Web site.

While the High Holy Days map is in its third year, it has some new features this time. For example, it now allows users to filter events based on their preferences, whether they are seeking services that are egalitarian; LGBT-friendly; interfaith-friendly; English-heavy; or Reform, Orthodox or Conservative. 

As of press time, several Los Angeles-area congregations — including Nashuva, Stephen S. Wise Temple, IKAR and Congregation Shir Chadash in Lakewood, Calif. — have listed their services on the map. More are expected to join during the two weeks leading up to the holidays.

The NEXT map was produced by San Francisco- and New York-based 10x Management, a talent agency that represents freelance programmers and other technology professionals. The map relies on GPS technology and enables users to tweet and share on Facebook which events they plan to attend.

As with the online map, NEXT also designed the meal subsidy program, the other part of the 2013 initiative, to encourage alumni and young professionals to participate in and engage with the most important holidays of the year.

Hosts will be reimbursed up to $10 per guest for up to 16 guests, and NEXT has made resource materials available on its Web site to help enrich the experience. These include recipes, dinner ideas, holiday videos and much more.

The program was inspired by the longstanding NEXT Shabbat program, which covers the cost of Shabbat meals — a host simply provides receipts and photos as proof that they hosted one.

“We understand one of the most effective ways toward a deeper understanding of Jewish learning is to have the opportunity to [sit around a dinner table] with a large circle of friends,” Levin said.

For more information on the High Holy Days initiative, including the interactive map and the subsidy program, visit

Storahtelling taps Isaac Shalev, ex-Birthright NEXT exec, as new leader

Storahtelling has tapped former Birthright NEXT executive Isaac Shalev to become its next executive director.

Isaac Shalev, who helped launched Birthright NEXT and served as COO to the official follow-up program for Birthright Israel, will assume his new post on Feb. 15.

Shalev succeeds Amichai Lau-Lavie, who founded Storahtelling some 13 years ago. The organization pioneered taking the narratives and traditions of Old World Jewish liturgy and adapting them into modern performance art and storytelling.

Storahtelling informs and transforms the ways modern Jews relate to their cultural legacy, ritual celebrations and spiritual heritage, using what it calls “The Maven Method,” which integrates Judaism’s oldest teaching tools with contemporary stagecraft and educational techniques. The organization has satellite programs in Colorado, California and Israel. 

Lau-Lavie will continue working with Storahtelling as founding director, focusing solely on overseeing the organization’s work training Mavens around the world.

“For everything there is a season,” Lau-Lavie said in a statement announcing the hire of Shalev. “Building Storahtelling from the ground up has been a tremendous adventure. With so many talented people now on board, we are ready for bigger and better. I am proud of what we’ve achieved and am excited about our next chapter.”