For Covenant Award-winning Teacher, It’s All About Empathy
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For Covenant Award-winning Teacher, It’s All About Empathy

Yeshivah of Flatbush drama therapist’s work ranges from puppets to the Shoah-related Witness Theater.

Sandee is the arts and culture editor at the Jewish Week.

Common touch: Sally Grazi-Shatzkes with her kindergarten charges at Yeshivah of Flatbush. Photos by Sandee Brawarsky/JW
Common touch: Sally Grazi-Shatzkes with her kindergarten charges at Yeshivah of Flatbush. Photos by Sandee Brawarsky/JW

When Sally Grazi-Shatzkes walks into a classroom of jumpy kindergarten students, she delays taking out the puppet they know she has in her bag.

“Before you meet my puppet,” she tells them, enunciating each syllable, “I would like to see if there are things I have in common with you.” She then begins a game, asking those who have something in common, whether sneakers, or babies at home, or going on a trip the next day (this is the day before winter break at Yeshivah of Flatbush), to stand up. The boys and girls scramble up and down before meeting Amy the puppet, who, they are forewarned, is feeling anxious about joining them, as she’s feeling different from everyone else.

Morah Sally, as she is known, is called in to help build cohesion in this classroom. She has the kids’ total attention: The takeaway is about being respectful of Amy and all others who may feel “different,” and sharing kindness.

For Grazi-Shatzkes, the school’s drama therapist, empathy is at the heart of all of her work, whether doing puppet performances in the elementary school, presenting a musical in Hebrew with high schoolers or working with members of the school’s senior class and Holocaust survivors on “Witness Theater.” She’s always trying to get students to understand the world a bit more by seeing it through the eyes of others.

Last fall, Grazi-Shatzkes, 38, was awarded the 2019 Covenant Award, the distinguished prize in Jewish education, for her work, and she was named to The Jewish Week’s “36 Under 36” list in 2017.

Her work is the subject of an excellent documentary film by Oren Rudavsky, “Witness Theater.” Since 2012, she has been bringing together groups of 16 high school seniors and eight local Holocaust survivors (selected by the organization Self-Help, which developed the program in New York after it was initiated in Israel) to create an annual performance, based on the survivors’ stories.

This year’s show will be the program’s eighth, and Grazi-Shatzkes hopes the shows will continue, although it is more difficult each year to enlist survivors. Other schools, including Heschel, Ramaz and Trinity, have also participated in Witness Theater programs, but Grazi-Shatzkes was the first educator approached by Self-Help, and YOF is the only school to do it annually.

Sally Grazi-Shatzkes

This is the first time most of the YOF students are meeting survivors (the student body is predominantly Sephardic), and the survivors come to the program with some hesitation. With great skill and presence, Grazi-Shatzkes leads them, gently, in getting to know and trust each other, and then sharing their stories. The students record and then retell the stories, creating the basis of the performance, with all of the participants on stage — and the participants stay in touch beyond the performance.

Twenty-seven survivors who participated in the program attended the Covenant Award dinner and cheered Grazi-Shatzkes.

“I was so proud to have them there. I was accepting the award on their behalf. I would not be getting the award if not for them.”

Her work at Flatbush is a love story: She feels strongly about giving back to the school she attended, on whose stage she found her truest self and where her five children go to school. It’s also the place where she met her husband, Danny Shatzkes (they were friends in school and began dating at the end of college), who also works at YOF, where he is the school’s audio engineer and also the musical director for the “Witness Theater” shows.

“I have a lot of confidence in my creativity when he is behind me,” she says.

Grazi-Shatzkes is exuberant talking about her work. She admits that she pours her soul into what she does.

“Theater is the source of all of my energy,” she says. “I built my confidence on the stage. I had opportunities to step out of my comfort zone.” Her first big moment was playing Belle in “Beauty and the Beast,” in Hebrew, as a high school freshman. She remembers her entrance from the audience; she stood up, started singing, and was soon joined on stage by 50 others.

Later, at Columbia University, Grazi-Shatzkes pursued her interest in acting, but found that the performing schedule didn’t work well with her Sabbath observance. She then shifted to directing, which she loved, and where she could set the schedules. After graduating, she earned a degree in drama therapy from NYU. She explains that by then she cared less about being in the spotlight and wanted to give the theater experience to others, and help achieve healing through theater.

Grazi-Shatzkes and her puppet Amy: A lesson in overcoming differences.

A triathlete, Grazi-Shatzkes works out at least twice a week, year-round, in running, swimming and biking. During summers, she runs the drama program at Camp Morasha and writes some of the shows it puts on. At her synagogue, Congregation Bnei Yitzhak, she leads weekly groups for girls, often using Bibliodrama and interactive reading of texts.

When her children are older — they now range in age from 4 to 14 — she would like to get back on stage in community theater. Meanwhile, she plans on staying at Flatbush “for a long time” and hopes to be even more involved, reaching more students, perhaps teaching theater classes.

“I’m invested in my alma mater, my community school, the place that gave me the foundation I have. I’m invested in making the school my kids attend the best school it can be.”

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