Women’s Performance Community of Jerusalem thrives against the odds

Performing and surviving: The arts in the time of coronavirus

Hidden: The Musical - The Secret Jews of Spain, by the Women's Performance Community of Jerusalem (photo credit: REBECCA KOWALSKI)
Hidden: The Musical - The Secret Jews of Spain, by the Women's Performance Community of Jerusalem
(photo credit: REBECCA KOWALSKI)
They are four English-speaking women with a single vision – to build a supportive women’s community bringing women from the Greater Jerusalem area together. Co-founder Avital Macales explained how the Women’s Performance Community of Jerusalem (WPCJ) nurtures their vision.
“We do this through the performing arts – through theater productions and cultural evenings, since the arts are one of our biggest passions.
“The WPCJ was founded in 2016 because we realized that the Greater Jerusalem area is so widespread and so diverse, sometimes leaving people feeling lonely and isolated. We wanted to try and bridge the gaps between between Katamon and Ramat Eshkol, between Beit Shemesh and Beit El.”
Co-founder Sharon Katz, who handles the group’s social media and marketing efforts added, “The Women’s Performance Community of Jerusalem is not just a theater company. We are a community of women that is built around performance. As an added bonus, every other year, we put on a major musical in Jerusalem. Other wonderful and talented theater companies focus on the show; we focus on the community, and the show is a bonus.”
IN 2018, the WPCJ staged Hidden: The Musical – The Secret Jews of Spain.
Macales shared that the play, which she co-wrote, co-composed and co-produced with Katz and which featured a cast of 60 women and girls, was, “based on the beloved classic novel The Family Aguilar by Rabbi Marcus Lehmann. Hidden tells the story of the Aguilars, secret Jews who struggle to keep their faith during the dark days of the Spanish Inquisition.
“It centers around Don Diego Aguilar, a rising star in the Church, who discovers upon the day of his elevation to Inquisitor of Madrid that his heretical Jewish family lives and is imprisoned in his own dungeon. Diego is forced to choose between serving the Church, which raised him to greatness, and risking his life to save his family and return to his people.”
In addition to the successful run of Hidden, the WPCJ, in partnership with the OU Center of Jerusalem, offered monthly performance-based events, such as the life of a medical clown, presented by Julie Levi, an improv workshop presented by Debbie Hirsch, a bibliodrama workshop presented by Yael Unterman, a mime workshop with Leeba Rappeport and an art exhibit by painter and former Prisoner of Zion Sylva Zalmanson.
Along with these live events, Katz and Macales were researching and writing an original musical called Whisper Freedom: The Soviet Jewry Struggle.
“We were supposed to have auditions for Whisper Freedom right after Passover, and go into rehearsals for a November run,” Katz said.
Then COVID struck. The coronavirus outbreak put a halt to that plan.
“Since we focus on community, we didn’t want to have auditions until we could [do so] face-to-face and we didn’t want to begin the rehearsal process until we could rehearse all together. Since a cast of 60 or 70 is too large a gathering to bring together, we are waiting for the world to heal in order to begin production work on Whisper Freedom,” she related.
WHISPER FREEDOM might be on hold, but the WPCJ definitely is not.
“During COVID-19 times, the levels of isolation and loneliness are far greater [than before]. We are working hard trying to come up with ways to bring people together in a non-physical way. Thanks to the Internet, there are many possibilities,” Macales noted.
Co-founder Shifra Penkower, who serves as the director of WPCJ’s full-scale musical productions and is responsible for much of the creative vision of their shows and other activities, explained, “The face-to-face element that we value so much is absent, unfortunately, so we had to adapt our activities in order to comply with the current (and constantly changing) health regulations.
“But davka (specifically) because we value the human connection facet of what we do, we didn’t let that setback stop us from doing what we do best: creating meaningful opportunities to share arts-related content with our growing community.
“Since our mission is not limited to putting on a show, we are better situated than many other performing groups to weather this storm. It doesn’t feel like such a departure from our regular programming to hold our events over Zoom, or to hold an online game night with our cast, or to have our community members get together [virtually] to do fun and creative things online.”
Katz elaborated, “We couldn’t be together in real life, so we were together on screen. We created little clips of us interacting with one another, even though we were each in our own home. When the toilet paper hysteria hit, we passed rolls of toilet paper to one another. When Passover cleaning began, we cleaned together. We made clips for Yom Ha’Atzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day), for Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day) and for mask safety.”
Penkower dubbed the interactive clips “grid-vids” because all four women appear on the screen in a 2x2 grid pattern.
“I suppose we didn’t really pivot to something else so much as adapt our existing goals to the current circumstances so that we could proceed as usual,” she reflected.
THE FOURTH WPCJ co-founder is Katz’s daughter, Bati Katz Koplon, who is responsible for the technical aspects of the shows and serves as the liaison between the crews and workmen and the creative team. Koplon said, “Our emphasis is the same, on keeping the community together, but we do it in a different way.”
Macales shared another positive outcome of the COVID pandemic.
“We have been blessed with more time to continue our research on the Soviet Jewry struggle and add even more nuance and depth to our script. In fact, working on the script during the [first] nerve-wracking nationwide lockdown was my escape from reality. Ironically, I happened to be writing about our protagonist being in solitary confinement in the Gulag.”
Katz related, “Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve been having monthly events on Zoom. This has actually become very interesting, because we are no longer constrained by space, and we have women participating from all over the world.
“We celebrated Yom Yerushalayim traveling to several different Jerusalem neighborhoods with guest stars who gave us a tour of their neighborhood and then performed for us. We traveled [virtually] with our community to Moscow to learn about life during and after Stalin. We [virtually] visited Venice and heard about the ghetto and modern-day Venice. We even had an evening teaching our cast how to say a few words in Russian to prepare for our upcoming show, Whisper Freedom.”
Macales sees even more benefits to the virtual WPCJ online events.
“We are very excited to have discovered the ability to reach women from all over the world. What started out as a ‘making lemonade out of lemons’ situation has turned into a platform for new possibilities. After having our two international Zoom events thus far – in Moscow and in Venice – women are now asking us, “Where are we going next?’”
Koplon hinted, “We’ve got lots of entertainment evenings that we’re planning, but they are all taking a back seat to our biggest project so far.”
The WPC team is all smiles in an Independence Day online video (Avital Macales)
The WPC team is all smiles in an Independence Day online video (Avital Macales)
The eternally optimistic Katz shared, “COVID actually did us a big favor. For more than a year and a half, we have been editing the stage-to-screen version of our last production, Hidden: The Secret Jews of Spain.
“Anyone who has ever edited knows it’s a very detailed and tedious process. COVID gave us the time and the push to create something new, to make something exciting happen, and that pushed us further to concentrate on the movie version of Hidden.
“It’s actually coming to home screens everywhere after Rosh Hashanah, beginning on Monday evening, September 21 at 8 p.m. Women the world over can rent Hidden at http://bit.ly/rent-hidden.
“For us, this is a dream come true. We love our shows and are always sad when our run on stage is over. Now Hidden will live on – on film. Instead of the 4,000 women who have seen it [live in Jerusalem], we hope many thousands more from all over the world will experience it.”
Macales explained, “Our audiences were riveted and moved to tears by this depiction of an important, and sometimes not well-known, piece of Jewish history. We are sure our at-home audiences will be just as moved. We picked September 21 as our launch day because that is during the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. [Hidden] opens with secret Jews observing Yom Kippur in their hidden basement, painfully asking God for forgiveness for being coerced to outwardly worship idols and commit sins every day as Conversos (Jews who outwardly converted to Christianity).”
The online screening of Hidden will be followed, according to Penkower, by, “more game nights, more [virtual] international travel [and] virtual Stars Over Jerusalem events, featuring new and exciting talent.”
Katz calls Israel’s women’s performance scene “flourishing.” Penkower shared that “immigrating to Israel opens up opportunities for religious women that do not exist abroad. When I moved here, suddenly a world of creativity opened up for me.”
Katz added, “We have had opera singers and professional dancers who moved to Israel, ready to give it all up, and when we found one another, we were all thrilled to have talent of such a high caliber in our community.”
“If a religious woman wants to realize her dream and perform at a concert or on stage, Jerusalem is the place to be, and especially the WPCJ,” Koplon noted. “Whether they want to perform only for women because they are religious or whether they just feel more comfortable performing among women, the WPCJ welcomes them. “The audience for women’s theater and the pool of talent to perform in women-only performances are bigger than ever. We’re very spoiled in Jerusalem. Not a month can go by without a women’s concert, women’s show, women’s comedy night. We have it all,”
WILL THE WPCJ survive?
“The answer is an emphatic yes,” enthused Katz. “WPCJ will survive because it’s not just about putting on a show. Our main mission is creating and maintaining a supportive, warm, unified community. We began building our community right from the beginning and we have continued throughout all of our real-life activities and even our Zoom activities. We’ve structured our programming so that it can work in real-life and on Zoom, so we can keep on going, no matter what. Also, we keep in touch with our community. Our WPCJ family is truly a family. We’ve kept active, creative and involved.”
Penkower concurred, “We’ve been staying true to our mission this whole time, even as circumstances have required – even inspired – us to adjust our activities accordingly. In other words, the means may be different, but the ends are the same. Our goals haven’t changed: work on meaningful projects in a loving and supportive creative environment, thereby teaching, entertaining and fostering relationships that are based on the shared values and passions of the people in our growing community. The WPCJ has been surviving and thriving all along and I am confident that we will continue to do so going forward.”
Macales concluded, “We look forward to ‘the day after corona,’ so to speak, when we hope to hold auditions for Whisper Freedom, build a strong cast and take it to the Jerusalem stage, telling the epic story of how Soviet Jews fought to bring down the Iron Curtain. We don’t know when that will happen, but one day it will, and we will stay active in any way we can until then.”
The WPCJ is a nonprofit organization and all money from ticket sales and crowdsourcing campaigns is invested in future productions. “We do it because we love it. It’s food for our souls,” Katz affirmed.
To stay updated on their events, follow The Women’s Performance Community of Jerusalem on Facebook.