We began Raise Your Spirits Theatre (originally called “Raise Your Spirits Summer Stock Company”) in 2001, in the middle of a horrific intifada, to raise the spirits of the women and girls in Gush Etzion. But it went far beyond that. We have also performed in Jerusalem, Raanana, Kiryat Arba, Gush Katif, Kedumim and Rehovot and our shows have been licensed and performed by others in Canada, New York, Cincinnati, at summer camps and in India, and, in Jerusalem, by the special needs female students of the Darkenu program at Midreshet Lindenbaum. All this fulfills our goal of “May the Torah go forth from Zion and Jerusalem.” We blossomed and grew far, far beyond the place where we began, and since 2001 have performed eleven productions, and all but one were original work of women of Raise Your Spirits (and sometimes a male composer or arranger), including three revivals.
In the year 2019, we performed for the first time in Hebrew (with English surtitles projected above the stage); before that, all our English productions had Hebrew surtitles projected. Our belief is that the Tanach (Bible) is our heritage and our promise and can be brought to the stage in a way that is creative and respectful, and gives us all hope for the future. Our goal is to produce high quality productions while bringing joy and healing to women who have suffered from trauma or abuse, and also to “regular” women and girls, as everyone needs encouragement or healing in their lives. Our goal is also to help girls and women develop their talents and give them a platform where they can use them, feeling comfortable, appreciated and safe.
Our casts are multi-generational, and we always have family members perform together on stage — grandmothers, mothers, daughters, sisters, which adds an additional element of bonding.
Women and girls leave our shows with a song in their hearts, a spring in their step, and a deeper knowledge of our heritage.
In 2017 we performed a revival of “Ruth and Naomi in the Fields of Bethlehem” before approximately 2,400 women, including five performances in Gush Etzion and two performances in Jerusalem, for which we also produced a double DVD that has since then been sold both in Israel and abroad. (We also have CD’s and DVD’s from our other shows for sale.) One of our choreographers was an Italian dramatist/dancer who was in the midst of converting to Judaism, and this smoothed her path and taught the youngsters, especially, how to accept “the other,” as she had little Hebrew and English, and her communication was mostly through movement. Although the majority of our cast has always been “dati-leumi,” we included in our cast women and girls who are not Orthodox, and also a haredi women, as our goal is also unity. One of the highlights of that show was what the director calls “the anti-BDS scene,” in which the song “Bountiful Land” is accompanied by girls bringing out boxes and signs indicating agricultural and medical accomplishments, Waze and more, by Israel. We had 25 young girls in the cast (in addition to about 35 women) and, like in the past, this helped develop their talents and their self-confidence.
In 2018-19 we performed the Hebrew version of “JUDGE! Song of Deborah.” This was a huge achievement, as it meant auditioning and casting, for the first time, women and girls whose native language is Hebrew (though we’ve always had some native Hebrew speakers in our shows), while at the same time including native English speakers, so this was one more bridge that we built. Then, too, we included women from diverse religious, political and lifestyle viewpoints. We performed three times in Gush Etzion and three times at the theater in the Shalva Center, Jerusalem, which also, by extension, supported the important work of Shalva.
We are currently working on the writing of a new show, called “Rebecca, Mother of Two Empires,” that will relate to the special persona of Rebecca, her relationship with Yitzhak, how they coped with her infertility, the struggling of two children in her womb, that led to a struggle once they were born, and it will raise the question: “Is there a chance for reconciliation?” We believe this is especially relevant in our day and age, as Yaakov of course was the forerunner of the Jewish people, but Eisav led to Edom, who is believed to be the forerunner of Rome and Christianity, and there are indications that the Christian world is slowly turning away from anti-Semitism; at least some.
The conditions we need to expand and duplicate are exposure and, of course, funding. Our highest expense is the creating of the original music, which is done by our composer/arranger, Mitch Clyman, as “work for hire.”
Our shows have already been licensed and performed by a Jewish day school in Hamilton, Ontario, by Flatbush Yeshiva, by a women’s group (mixed Orthodox and non-Orthodox) in Cincinnati, several times by a synagogue in Riverdale, at summer camps, and in India, where a Christian man, who works with poor street children in Mumbai, performed our show on Ruth.
In addition, we know that many other community theater groups with a focus on women’s empowerment have been engendered, inspired by Raise Your Spirits Theatre. When we began in 2001, we were “the only game in town.” Today, Israel is replete with women’s performing groups – in Jerusalem (where we also rehearse and perform half the time), Modiin, Beit Shemesh and elsewhere. None of these existed in 2001. We are proud and gratified to have been the first. There are also groups now writing original work, as we do.
And more – not just women’s community theater groups have been created since we began the trend. There are groups of teens who are gathering together to create high quality theater, and mixed groups. We were not the first English language theater group to exist in general (JEST and Beit Hillel preceded us) but we were the first all women’s theatrical group (that did it in a big way) and the first group that, to this day, focuses exclusively on inspirational stories from the Tanach, the Bible.
The Artistic Director, theatrical director and a lead manager of the Raise Your Spirits productions is Toby Klein Greenwald. Other women have also joined her in producing.
Her personality: She is a creative, enthusiastic, dedicated person who comes from the disciplines of the performing arts, education and writing (journalism, plays, poetry, prose).
She has never viewed performing art as “for art’s sake” only but has always seen it also as a vehicle for community building and healing. To this end, she has included in her casts people who have suffered trauma, teens at risk, the disabled, and youngsters with learning disabilities or ADHD. She has initiated “road shows” to troubled spots, such as Gush Katif and Samaria. Adults in her casts have included people who have suffered death, divorce or abuse. Raise Your Spirits Theatre has always welcomed in the audience, free of charge, family members of victims of terror and of soldiers who fell in the line of duty, and Toby welcomes them from the stage, to make them feel honored. RYS has also hosted women from Bat Melech (for battered women) and women and girls referred by local social workers, who cannot afford to buy tickets, to give them an evening’s respite.
She has worked with many different types of people and thus has learned to be patient, compassionate, optimistic and encouraging. In her personal life, in the year 2016-7, she continued to direct and produce a show, throughout the season, while undergoing chemotherapy sessions for breast cancer. (She’s fine now, thank God.) In the year 2019 she continued to produce a show from a wheelchair, after she broke her ankle. She has always tried to be a role model, especially for young actors.
Her motivation for helping to develop the initiative of Raise Your Spirits Theatre is to bring the Bible to the masses through theater, bring joy and healing to those who are sad (whether the audience or cast members), create high quality theatrical art, and help girls and women of all ages develop their talents, leading them to feel empowered, self-confidant, and helping them to also gain experience that will promote them professionally. She is constantly meeting former actors who say to her, “You changed my life.” Many of her current or former actors developed livelihoods as a result of what they received in Raise Your Spirits.
Her job description: With the exception of one production, she has always been the director of the Raise Your Spirits shows, and very often the producer or co-producer also. She also participated in the writing of most of the shows. Her directing duties include interpreting the dramatic texts, creating the scenes, and working closely with the actors to help them portray their characters in the most genuine and engaging way possible, and to help them also grow personally in their dramatic skills and in their lives. As director and as producer or co-producer she has also been closely involved in decisions and implementation regarding costumes, props, scenery and logistics. She has also participated in fund-raising for the theater troupe and interacted with officials from the varous venues of performance.