When Sari Kahn was growing up in North Miami Beach, Fla., she starred in “The Skin of Her Teeth,” and “You Can’t Take It With You.” She was a doo-wop girl in “Little Shop of Horrors” and hammed it up as Mrs. Sowerberry in “Oliver.” Her twin girls aren’t so lucky.
“My kids go to a wonderful school on Long Island called Hebrew Academy of Nassau County, but they don’t really have a theater program or a dance program,” she said.
It’s not uncommon for observant families to have trouble finding programs for drama-bug-bitten children. Community programs often perform on Shabbat, many yeshivas lack strong theater and dance programs and some that do might follow a prohibition against girls 12 and over performing in front of men.
So Kahn began nursing a plan: Create a performing arts summer camp for Jewish girls. She joined up with Dale Pianko, a social worker who fell in love with theater at age 8 when she starred in “Oliver,” but had to turn down a high school role of Goldie in “Fiddler on the Roof,” because she couldn’t participate in Saturday performances. Instead, she performed at local nursing homes as a child.
Both women had helpful professional expertise.
Kahn has a career in Jewish camps, most recently running a preschool day camp. Pianko spent much of her career in the camp world as a counselor and camp director. Seven years ago, she bought a 100-acre former YMCA camp in Pennsylvania and opened a sports camp for observant girls. She closed the camp after two years to focus on other priorities, but jumped on the chance to reopen it when, in January 2013, Kahn heard about Pianko and suggested they combine forces. They named it Camp Maor, the Hebrew word for “a source of light.”
The camp aims to combine Jewish observance and study with professional performing arts training.
Rebbetzin Bethany Strulowitz of West Side Institutional Synagogue, who teaches Judaic studies at Manhattan Day School, will head the camp’s Jewish education programming. All of the counselors are college-age and observant.
“We wanted counselors who show the kids that it’s cool to really follow a Torah-style lifestyle but you can also be involved in arts,” Kahn said.
Malka Sigal, a senior at Stern College where she’s vice president of the Stern College Dramatic Society, signed up for the summer.
“I really just enjoy the performing arts and I’m glad there’s another outlet for students to explore it,” she said. “It’s the kind of camp that I would have loved to be a camper at, but there was no such thing as a theater camp for frum girls when I was growing up.”
The instructors are all former or current theater professionals, most of whom became observant after years of training and performance. They include a former Rockette, an Off-Broadway director, a former voice coach of Celine Dion and an Israeli ballerina.
But despite the professionalism of the training, the camp’s emphasis is on supporting girls as they transition to adolescence.
“We’re not trying to create Broadway actresses,” Kahn said. “We’re trying to give girls self confidence and self esteem at a period when we feel it’s really critical,” she said
Kahn plans to make the camp experience different.
“First of all we’re not unpacking on the first day of camp,” she said. Instead, campers will meet up in Manhattan and see “Alladin” before heading to Pennsylvania. Once there they’ll have dinner, during which the staff is going to break out in a flash-mob-style performance.
To foster a strong sense of community, Kahn and Pianko are keeping the camp small, limiting it to 50 girls in grades 3 through 8. So far, 40 campers have signed up. They come from across the religious spectrum, from Modern Orthodox co-ed day schools to all-girls “Bais Yaacov-type schools” favored by the black hat, yeshivish crowd. They are also diverse geographically, with campers coming from Los Angeles, Boston, Boca Raton, Fla., and Atlanta in addition to the tri-state crowd.
Rifka Harris, a sculptor who lives in Kew Gardens, Queens and identifies as “quite religious,” signed up her 12-year-old daughter, Risa, after attending a parlor meeting held by Kahn.
“I was tremendously impressed with her and the clarity of her mission,” she said. “Just the whole idea that a girl can grow up fully Orthodox but still have this venue to self-actualize.”
The summer is divided into a four-week session in July and a two-week August “intensive.” Every camper takes part in daily morning prayer and has the option to join a prayer session in the afternoon.
They choose a concentration either in voice or dance and can opt for such electives as improve, puppetry, special effects, building their own instruments, stage makeup and Shakespearean acting.
Racheli Hackel of West Hempstead signed her 13-year-old daughter, Elisheva, after a parlor meeting with Kahn. “At the middle of the parlor meeting she said you’ve got to sign me up now. She was so excited,” she said.
Her daughter loves singing and dancing, but is often stymied by her observance. “She did a drama day camp a couple years ago in Long Island which was wonderful. But because it wasn’t a Jewish-run program there were programs on Friday night and on Saturday morning and of course she couldn’t participate in the shows and she couldn’t get great roles,” Hackel said.
“What I liked as a mom about Maor is that they are very conscious about the fact that a love of the arts will give you a sense of a broader world, but also at the same time by allowing you to participate it gives you self-confidence to get up there in front of everybody,” she said. “For us it’s really the combination of a drama program and a Jewish program, which will allow her to be 100 percent herself and 100 percent comfortable.”