January 18, 2020

Jewish Bucket List Item No. 2: The Miracle Project

The song “Matchmaker” from “Fiddler on the Roof” is now in my head, thanks to my February Jewish bucket list community service experience at The Miracle Project.

I have been volunteering all of my life. I have early memories of my mom taking me to B’nai Zion synagogue in Chicago to do crafts with seniors, so I knew I had to find something unique for my Jewish community service bucket list item. 

When I discovered that February is Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month, I knew I’d found my focus. Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, president of the disability advocacy nonprofit RespectAbility, put me in touch with acting coach Elaine Hall, who founded The Miracle Project in 2004. 

The Miracle Project, supported in part by the Jewish Community Foundation, helps children and adults with autism and other disabilities develop communication and other skills through the expressive and performing arts. Basically, my community service was singing, dancing and playing theater games with a bunch of new friends. 

Volunteers (aka co-actors ages 12 and up) are invited to join and support The Miracle Project’s students in immersive experiences. Based in Beverly Hills, most of the classes take place at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. Some of the volunteers are professional performers while others are simply family, friends, students and members of the community like myself. 

“We call it reverse inclusion,” Hall said. “We bring the neurotypical world into the world of autism and neurological difference so that we create a community not only of inclusion but of true belonging.”

“By creating opportunities for nondisabled peers to learn about our world, it allows the spirit in us to see the spirit in them and [vice versa]. And we learn that we’re all one.” — Elaine Hall

Among the myriad programs The Miracle Project offers are Triple Threat (choreography, vocal and performance technique training by entertainment professionals), TMP Company Class (participants collaborate to create an original musical) and Musical Theater.

On the day I volunteered, Hall greeted me with a huge smile and handed me a  bright blue The Miracle Project T-shirt to wear. I was immediately thrust into rehearsal of the aforementioned “Fiddler” song with four girls. I also had the opportunity to watch some of the rehearsals, and the performances were amazing. 

I then took part in a Jewish studies class where we sang songs in English and Hebrew. Some of the students sang solos. I was told this is to allow them to build their self-confidence. They also practiced self-expression through movement. We all encouraged one another. It was beautiful to see and be a part of. 

Another small group invited me to join them in theater games, which included playing the mirror game and building human machines. The entire experience was pure live-in-the-moment, cellphone-off, unadulterated joy.

“Tikkun olam is the essence of our Jewish tradition,” Hall said. “So we always want to be making the world a better place. We are all made in God’s image. By creating opportunities for nondisabled peers to learn about our world, it allows the spirit in us to see the spirit in them and [vice versa]. And we learn that we’re all one.”

I am seeking items for my 2019 Jewish bucket list. Please send your ideas to deckerling@gmail.com.

Debra Eckerling is a contributing writer to the Jewish Journal and a goal coach.