Raise Your Spirits Theater was born by email.Fifteen years ago, when Israel was in the midst of the second intifada, the communities of Gush Etzion were hit hard. Deadly terrorist acts crippled the main road leading to Gush Etzion and people stopped going out at night. The general atmosphere was heavy.A group of English-speaking women wanted to raise the spirits of women in their communities. A discussion on the local Efrat email list began with them asking one another, “What can we do to get out of the doldrums?” Eventually, Sharon Katz suggested, “Let’s put on a show!” Toby Klein Greenwald volunteered to direct. A hundred other women volunteered – to act, to create costumes, to sell tickets and more.That show, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, launched Raise Your Spirits Theater. Originally, there were two performances scheduled. The demand for tickets was so great that, in the end, the company performed 12 times.
Today, the all-female theater company is getting ready to open its ninth Bible-based musical show. The latest production, called Sisters! The Daughters of Tzelofchad, is based on a story of five sisters, as told in the Book of Numbers.Klein Greenwald is one of the powerhouse women behind Raise Your Spirits Theater. She’s a cofounder and the artistic director of the company. She’s also a teacher, playwright, journalist, photographer and writer. Raise Your Spirits Theater gives Klein Greenwald an outlet for two of her lifelong passions – Torah and theater.Her theater career started first, when she began producing shows in summer camp at the age of 11. A few years later, her love of Torah blossomed.“I grew up in Cleveland and went to Yavne [High School for Girls]. I knew at 16 that I wanted to study Torah seriously. I went to Michlalah in Bayit Vegan. It was the first post-high-school program for higher Torah learning for women. I had studied under Nechama Leibowitz at Machon Gold before Michlalah.”Today, she studies with Jewish scholars Shani Taragin, Dr. Bryna Levy and Erella Yedgar. When she’s writing a new show, she consults with them on the nuances of the biblical stories.It takes Klein Greenwald and her writing partners, including Arlene Chertoff, Sharon Katz, Yael Valier and Avital Macales, 12 to 18 months to write a new show.“When I write a show, I know that the learning that I put into it is the learning that I received at Michlalah and at the other schools I was in. Being able to combine love of Torah and love of theater is a dream come true,” Klein Greenwald acknowledged.Torah and theater is not a natural pairing, especially not for religious women who generally do not perform in front of men. Klein Greenwald recalled a poignant moment during the 2004-05 season when she realized she had achieved something extraordinary.“I remember when I came back from my father’s shiva. We were in the middle of performing Noah! Ride the Wave! I remember I came back and I was sitting backstage. During shloshim [a 30-day mourning period following the death of a loved one], I didn’t join in the singing and dancing. I realized that, in the end, I was learning Torah and working in theater. I didn’t miss out by going in this direction. I think if a person really follows what’s deep in their souls, they end up in the right place.” Reflecting on the years she’s spent with Raise Your Spirits Theater, Klein Greenwald commented, “My great joy is watching women and girls bring out and develop their talents. Sometimes they are very shy, but you know it’s there, and you want to help them find it. I love watching them on stage, taking a bow, to see how far they’ve come. This just gives me great nahat to see young people come out of their shells and gain confidence in themselves.”With pride, Klein Greenwald pointed to a distinctive accomplishment of Raise Your Spirits Theater. “We have given religious women a voice through a medium that was not regarded as a religious medium. Giving them a voice in what was not previously considered something that religious women did, opened up new vistas. Women can do anything.”
All Raise Your Spirits productions are musicals. Although she has been known to belly dance on stage, Klein Greenwald generally limits herself to speaking roles. “I recognize good singers, but I’m not a singer myself.”Instead, she spends most of her time upstairs with the sound and light crew. The crews tend to be men, largely because, as she explains, the equipment is heavy. “The next frontier is women doing sound and light,” Klein Greenwald predicted.Raise Your Spirits Theater is run by women for women, but there is one man whose work is absolutely critical to the success of the company. Klein Greenwald writes the lyrics and Mitch Clyman composes all the songs and records all the music used during performances.Sisters! is his sixth production.As a man, Clyman doesn’t work directly with the cast. In collaboration with Klein Greenwald, he’s acutely aware of “working with an extremely creative, talented person.” For Clyman, the content of the shows exposes him to a female perspective on classic Biblical stories.Torah teaching mixed with creative expression is crucial for the success of every original production of Raise Your Spirits Theater.But that’s not all it takes.Someone has to take care of all the logistical and technical aspects of the show, like booking rehearsal space, deciding on dates and locations of performances, overseeing the graphic design, getting posters printed, supervising the production of the playbill, coordinating the volunteers, submitting the newspaper ads and much more. That’s the job of the two co-producers, Eudice Spitz and Tamar Rubin.Despite insisting “I don’t do any of the creative stuff,” Spitz takes small character parts in some of the shows. And she takes pride in her ability to solicit ads in support of the production. “I happen to be good at asking people for money,” she said with a laugh.Spitz has been involved almost from the very beginning. She saw the company’s first production. The next year, when the notice came out announcing auditions for Esther & the Secrets in the King’s Court, the company’s first original production, Spitz was going through a tough time with her mother and her sister, who were both hospitalized with serious illnesses.“Maybe if I’m in it, it will raise my spirits,” Spitz thought. “I wanted to do something other than thinking about hospitals, sickness, doctors and work. I got into the first show and it helped me get out of my everyday life. It was very therapeutic.”Spitz was invited to join the advisory board and in 2010 Raise Your Spirits Theater became a nonprofit organization. “Just a few weeks ago, we got our tax-exempt status, so we’re very official now,” Spitz boasted.Asked what keeps her connected, Spitz explained, “It’s really all about sisterhood. To raise spirits of ourselves or anyone who comes to see us. It evolved into a support group. This is what keeps me going.“I’ve known Toby since the age of 12. We grew up in Cleveland and now we both live in Efrat. But when you work intensively together, then you become closer. What keeps me in the group is really friendship.”
“It’s a tremendous amount of work and I say every time I’m not going to do it again. Because I feel a certain tremendous commitment to my friends and to the group, I feel it’s a worthwhile endeavor. I do know that we do something very special for women at large.”Spitz elaborated on a part of the specialness. “Any terrorism victim or immediate family member is entitled to come to the show for free. We very gladly welcome them to come. They can just write to email@example.com to make arrangements. Also immediate family members of any soldiers who fell in the line of duty can come for free.”The company is particularly excited to be hosting a large group of Bnot Menashe ((women and girls from the Bnei Menashe tribe of India) on opening night, since the original daughters of Zelophehad were from the tribe of Manasseh. One of them, a talented singer, has been invited to lead everyone in singing “Hatikva” and “Ani Ma’amin” at the end of the show. Klein Greenwald commented, “I extended this invitation because, I thought, how special that we actually have women from that tribe living among us.”The Biblical story of Sisters! The Daughters of Tzelofchad is not as well-known as other stories Raise Your Spirits has produced. Klein Greenwald explained, “I’ve loved this story ever since I can remember.I named a daughter Noa for one of the Bnos Tzelofchad. In 2011, I saw that Dr. Avivah Zornberg was giving a shiur on Shavuot at midnight. In that shiur, she called them sisters. That was the first time I ever heard the daughters referred to as sisters. This shiur really inspired me.”She also acknowledged that, “some scenes in the show, and the character of Achla (wife of Zelophehad) were inspired by the book The Daughters Victorious by Rabbi Shlomo Wexler.”According to Spitz, the message of this show is “Sisterhood. The power of women. A message for Jewish women for the generations. That women, from the beginning of the Jewish people, have a place, rights, always have and should continue to stand up and speak out. Five strong women get together and assert their rights before Moses, the greatest of men, and they get their wish.”“The women who play the five adult sisters have been bonding in a way that’s really like sisters. The actresses have so gotten into their roles, they act like sisters.” Klein Greenwald observed.Spitz encouraged “every female from the age of someone who can sit in a seat without squirming” to come see the show, which has both English and Hebrew subtitles.Spitz recalled that her mother’s Filipina caretaker came to a previous show and loved it. “You don’t have to be religious or even know the Bible. You’ll learn the story through the songs. You don’t even have to be Jewish. It’s an extremely enjoyable show. Whoever comes will go away feeling good. It’s always a feel-good show.” Sisters! was written and directed by Toby Klein Greenwald, with music by Mitch Clyman. Produced by Eudice Spitz and Tamar Rubin; Sara Orenstein is the lead choreographer and Dalia Uriah HaCohen, assisted by Aviva Karpel and Grace Chana Woolf, serves as the music director. The show opens January 31 at the Gush Etzion Community Center. To buy tickets, go to raiseyourspirits.org.