Coinciding with International Women’s Day, ATARA, a community of women “committed to Torah observance and interested in the development and expression of creative talent” held its annual conference in Israel.

By: Atara Beck, United with Israel

For the first time since its founding 11 years ago, ATARA (Association for Torah and Arts for Religious Artists), created for Torah-observant women in the performing arts, held its annual conference in Israel. The launch of the event Thursday evening coincided with International Women’s Day.

According to Orthodox Jewish law, women do not sing or dance for an audience with men. As a result, professional women in the performing arts who choose to live according to halacha (Jewish law), until recent years, have been lacking a forum for their creative expression. Groups like ATARA have been formed to confront the challenge.

As its website explains, ATARA is a “community of individuals both committed to Torah observance and interested in the development and expression of creative talent.”

Toby Klein Greenwald, a founding board member, is a multi-talented mother of six and a grandmother who has taught Tanach (Bible Studies), Jewish Thought, English, Drama and Creative Writing. She is also a journalist, a poet, a documentary researcher, a script writer, a PR writer and a photographer.

In conversation with United with Israel, she described the “great sense of empowerment that women are finally able to use their talents in all of these ways.”

“As a matter of fact, there’s now such an abundance of women’s groups and individuals in the performing arts that there’s great competition today,” she said. “Of course it’s a blessing, just like mushrooms after the rain.”

Many of these women have embraced Orthodox Judaism more recently and had left a successful secular career.

Interest ‘Growing and Growing’ Around the World

The movement is “growing and growing all the time,” Klein Greenwald said. “The interest is in Israel, in North America, in England, in Australia and all over. These women are performing for women and don’t feel the necessity of having men in the audience in order to feel their self-worth as performers.”

In her experience, the husbands and other male relatives of the performers have “definitely been encouraging, especially when they see that their wives and daughters have outlets to express their creativity that didn’t exist before.”

“There are also professional men, some who work with us,” with sound, light, composing and other areas,” Klein Greenwald explained. “According to halacha, they are permitted to work with women and have commented on the high quality of these productions.”

The event, March 8-12, features highly professional performances by first-rate musicians and vocalists as well as an opportunity for religious women to network, use their talents and grow spiritually. The program, based in Jerusalem and Ramat Beit Shemesh (RBS), includes a Shabbat experience for women run by Rabbi Yehoshua and Judith Gerzi. The rabbi plays 13 instruments and leads a Friday night musical prayer service for his community in RBS. Judith Gerzi, a soul-singer and songwriting sensation, has been called “the Jewish Adele” and “the white Whitney Houston.”

The Thursday evening show in RBS was hosted by the Beit Shemesh Aliyah and Absorption department and the RBS Dance and Music Academy, which “provides a place where every woman and girl can express her creativity and spirituality through the art of dance.” The academy, which now has almost 200 students, performed at the Thursday event. The school’s founders and creative directors – Jezliah Villarreal, a gifted singer/songwriter, musican and dancer, and dancer/choreographer Shaked Sebag, were an integral part of the weekend.

A daytime workshop in Jerusalem included master classes in theater, music and dance taught by industry professionals, as well as presentations by Elisheva (Ellen) Horowitz, a religious American-Israeli state-of-the-art visual artist, and a Davidic Dynasty Legacy Museum tour.

A Sunday night “Class Act Concert” features diverse performances, including, among others, Ina-Esther Joost Ban-Sasson, the Jerusalem Symphony’s principal cellist; Emuna Bracha (Valentina) Recchia, an Italian hip-hop dancer; the award-winning Noga Dance Troupe and popular singer-songwriters from England, French Morocco, America and Israel.