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From bima to stage

Actress, playwright honors late husband’s Shabbat observance

Myra Cohen Klenicki, director and founder of the Bimah Players, the region’s first Shabbat-observant community theater group
Myra Cohen Klenicki, director and founder of the Bimah Players, the region’s first Shabbat-observant community theater group

The region’s first theater community group catering to the needs of Sabbath-observant Jews is about to hold auditions for its first production.

The Bimah Players will be under the sponsorship of Congregation Etz Chaim-Monroe Township Jewish Center, the Reform synagogue to which founder Myra Cohen Klenicki belongs.

She hopes the group, which will not stage rehearsals or performances on Shabbat, will attract multi-denominational religious and ethnic participation from across Middlesex, Monmouth, and Mercer counties.

“What I like about this is that it is inclusive,” said Klenicki. “If you’re Orthodox you’re welcome. If you’re Muslim, we won’t be working on your Sabbath. If you’re in a wheelchair, it’s fine. We’re like the old Levy’s rye bread commercial: ‘You don’t have to be Jewish….’”

The group’s first production, O. Henry’s New York, was written by Klenicki based on four short stories by the famed early 20th-century author, considered the master of the surprise ending.

Klenicki, a writer, director, and veteran of the New York stage, said she also decided to form the group to honor her late husband, Rabbi Leon Klenicki, the longtime interfaith director and co-liaison to the Vatican for the Anti-Defamation League. He died last year after a long battle with cancer.

“My husband was quite observant and always observed Shabbat,” she explained. “I think Leon would have been very pleased by this theater group.”

The couple had moved from their longtime home in the Gramercy Park section of Manhattan several years earlier to the Ponds adult community in Monroe because of his need for handicapped-accessible living space. Devoted to caring for her husband, she had little time for her own professional pursuits, although she did start a theater group at the Ponds, serving as both writer and director.

Klenicki has acted in Off-Broadway productions, written a children’s show for the Los Angeles Shakespeare Company, run her own children’s theater company in Manhattan, and served as head of the Israeli Broadcasting Service in America.

After her husband’s death, Klenicki traveled. “You can’t outrun your grief but you can at least give it a moving target,” she said.

It was during this period that Klenicki realized she could honor some of her husband’s most cherished ideals — encouraging understanding among Jews and others and promoting Jewish observance — while finding an outlet for her own creativity.

Rabbi Ben Levy, Etz Chaim’s religious leader, loved the idea and brought it to the synagogue board, which also enthusiastically endorsed it.

Levy will also get into the act: He and his “doo-wop” group, the Echoes, will perform period songs in four-part harmony for the O. Henry production.

“One issue for our synagogue is to provide meaningful programming for all ages, and this indeed adds to our array of meaningful programming,” said Levy. “One of its prime positive aspects is that it allows people to be actively Jewish.”

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