In the basement of the Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth, a group of young actors have found a venue for artistic expression while learning a valuable lesson in how a Jewish American fought for social justice.
The young people, ages seven to 17, come from across Middlesex County to be part of StudioJ, a new, pluralistic initiative combining theater arts with Jewish education.
The students — Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and unaffiliated and representing public, private, charter, and Jewish day schools — are rehearsing for a March 29 performance of Only in America, a play based on the true story of a Jewish immigrant who became a crusading journalist in the segregated South.
“Each week we discuss and participate in theatrical activities exploring the play’s introduction of social justice, helping those in need, and forgiveness between people,” said congregant Stacy L Greenblatt, a teaching artist and theatrical director from Highland Park. “Students also enjoy learning the Yiddish phrases” included in the script.
The program is funded by a close to $8,000 grant from the former Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County.
The synagogue applied for the grant, said HPCT president Linda Tondow, because “there are many ways to reach everyone, especially young people, with Jewish education.”
“We know people learn in different ways,” she said. “We also know many young people are interested in theater, the arts, literature, and dance, and people often take their kids for lessons in these things. We thought: What a wonderful opportunity to look at the arts and theater through a Jewish lens.”
Through the grant, said Tondow, the theatrical group has been able to imbue youngsters with the message that “being Jewish means not only going to temple on Saturday morning and holidays, but also living life with Jewish values.”
“We are a Conservative temple, but the wonderful thing about a federation grant is that you need to reach out and partner with other Jewish organizations and synagogues.” As a result, she said, “we have a diverse group of students exploring universal Jewish themes that we all hold as Jews.”
The temple has reapplied for the grant for next year at the request of the federation, now part of the Jewish Federation in the Heart of NJ.
Greenblatt, who holds a master’s degree in educational theater from New York University, teaches theater classes for the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick and at McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton. She is also the drama specialist at Hatikvah International Academy charter school in East Brunswick and has used theater techniques to explore Jewish holidays and stories at the East Brunswick Jewish Center religious school.
Only in America is based on the true story of Harry Golden, an Austrian-born Jew who moved from the Lower East Side to North Carolina after spending five years in federal prison for mail fraud. He became a reporter for the Charlotte Labor Journal and Charlotte Observer, using his platform to rail against segregation and the Jim Crow Laws. From 1942 to 1968, he fought for the rights of African-Americans as publisher of the Carolina Israelite.
When Golden first moved to Charlotte, said Greenblatt, “no one wanted him around. Even Jews said that they had worked so hard to be Americans and here he comes trying to integrate the schools and buses.”
“But he said you have to stick your neck out to help others.”
Greenblatt said one of the things she discusses with the young actors is “whether you can make up for the mistakes of the past.” Golden was pardoned by President Richard Nixon in 1974.
At a Feb. 18 rehearsal, the young people practiced their lines, tried on costumes, and sat in a circle discussing the play.
Tali Goldman of Highland Park, a fourth-grader at Golda Och Academy in West Orange, plays two roles. She said she was excited to appear in the play, but surprised and saddened to learn of what African-Americans went through. Golden “fought so they didn’t have to sit in the back of the bus,” she said Tali.
Ilana Cunningham, 13, of Highland Park, who attends Montgomery Academy in Basking Ridge, said. “I thought it showed courage to stand up for your rights, but even more so to stand up for the rights of others.”
Celia Schmeidler, 10, of East Brunswick, a fifth-grader at Hatikvah, said she is participating because “I love to be in musical theater and love to be on stage.”
Jessica Hader of East Brunswick, 16, who attends Ilan High School in Deal, said she too participates in musical theater and “wanted to do something different.”
“This is a lot of fun,” she said.