Toby Klein Greenwald, director of Raise Your Spirits theater. (Rebecca Kowalsky) (Rebecca Kowalsky)
Toby Klein Greenwald
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Among her many professional achievements and hobbies, Toby Klein Greenwald directs first-rate theatrical performances in Judea that are by women and for women only. The impetus is to raise peoples’ spirits during the height of Palestinian terror.

Toby Klein Greenwald moved to Israel from Cleveland, Ohio, in 1967. A multi-talented mother of six and a grandmother, she 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.

“Yes, I have done many things, but they all touch in some way on creativity and Torah or literature,” she told United with Israel (UWI). “I also used to paint and belly dance!”

Greenwald, who lives in Efrat, a city in Gush Etzion (the Etzion Bloc) in Judea, joined Sharon Katz and Arlene Chertoff in creating “Raise Your Spirits” (RYS), an all-female non-profit theater troupe, in 2001, during the Second Intifada. The shows have all received rave reviews and were so professionally done that the audience often forgot that the male characters were in fact played by women.

This season’s show, The Daughters of Tzelophchad, co-produced by Eudice Spitz and Tammy Rubin, is based on an episode in the Torah demonstrating the courage of five sisters. The performances, for women only, are in memory of victims of terror and Israeli soldiers who fell in the line of duty and in honor of their families, whom RYS hosts their guests.

Raise Your Spirits theater

Scene from “Esther and the Secrets in the King’s Court.” (Rebecca Kowalsky)

Following is a UWI interview with Greenwald, given this week.

What inspired the launching of Raise Your Spirits? Who are the founders? 

During the Intifada of 2001, many people in Efrat were ‘down’ due to terrorist murders on our roads; people did not leave Efrat or Gush Etzion unless they had no choice. A lot of people didn’t go out at night, not only because they didn’t want to travel the roads, but because they were, sadly, glued to the TV news every night. A discussion started on the Efrat [communication] list about how to raise our spirits, and some of us made suggestions. Sharon Katz suggested putting on a play; she produced it, I offered to direct, Arlene Chertoff said she’d choreograph, we held auditions and 100 more women came on board as actresses, scenery and prop and costume people. We got together every night for rehearsals and thought we’d put on just two performances.

Sharon once referred in a blog to me as the “founding director” and Arlene as the “founding choreographer,” and that’s accurate. I have directed all the shows since the beginning. Sharon began it all. That was almost 15 years ago, and we’re still going strong. We are now in production of our ninth show.

Did it actually succeed in raising peoples’ spirits during the Intifada? And now, during the current wave of terror? 

Yes. There is something special about coming together no matter what is going on outside. We start every rehearsal and show with the reading of a chapter of Psalms. During the Intifada, Sharon, Arlene and I made a decision never to cancel rehearsals or shows due to a terror attack, and even though there has been some turnover in the main players, RYS has stuck to that decision. Last night [Sunday, the day a terrorist murdered Dafna Meir], I was in the middle of working with the sound and light men, during our first stage rehearsal, when I got a group text from the principal of one of the schools where I work that the woman murdered in [the nearby town of] Otniel was the mother of one of our students. It turns out he [the victim’s son] was my student last year. I just kept going and allowed it to sink in later. Today I taught his class, which had just returned from their classmate’s mother’s funeral. That is our life. We go on.

Raise Your Spirits

Raise Your Spirits founders (L to R) Arlene Chertoff, Toby Greenwald and Sharon Katz (Rebecca Kowalsky)

Do the shows inspire faith?

I believe so. They are always based on the Tanach, and that is the story of faith and the Jewish people. We hold our heads high and don’t let the bad guys get us down. We’ve performed through intifadas and wars, and we just keep on going.

How many plays have you done and for about how many women have you performed?

This is the ninth production, and if I include women who have seen our plays abroad, where we license them for performance – and men also, as we license them to mixed groups as well – about 40,000.

What is your experience as a drama teacher? 

I grew up dancing around the living room to musicals on the stereo and underneath the dining room table covered with a sheet was my first theater. I directed my first play – in the neighborhood – at the age of 11 and continued all through school, camp, Bnei Akiva (Religious Zionist youth organization) and college. But there was no framework for an Orthodox woman to study theater professionally in those days, so I followed my other great love, studying Torah. Now, when I write and direct biblical musicals, I feel blessed that I can have it all. I always integrated theater into my Tanach classes and my English classes. I’ve lectured on innovative teaching methods, and those have always included theater. In 2003 I was asked to create and train the Playback theater of Gush Etzion, and in 2008 I created two new Playback theater troupes; I train them in theater and they go on to work with others, passing the torch, which gives me tremendous joy and satisfaction.

Do you empower girls and women in the community?

That’s an understatement! I encourage women and girls of all ages to reach for their dreams, develop their talents, be bold. I love to see how young women develop more self confidence, how little girls, who sometimes have struggles in school or with friends, find a venue in which they can shine. I’ll always be an educator deep at heart; our theater combines three elements – it’s educational, therapeutic AND fun! Many women have gone on to perform in other venues and to develop their talents professionally, and have acquired jobs as a result of the exposure they received in our RYS productions.

raise your spirits theater

Scene from “Ruth and Naomi in the Fields of Bethlehem” (Rebecca Kowalsky)

Raise Your Spirits was the first large-scale women-to-women theater troupe. It is a great passion for me, and I see it as a goal that Torah shall go forth from Zion to the whole world. I love seeing women and girls of all ages and types and levels of talent up on stage together, singing and dancing their hearts out and loving it, and loving each other. We are a true sisterhood.

What can you tell us about the current production?

“Sisters! The Daughters of Tzelofchad” is about the five daughters of Tzelofchad, who come before Moses to ask for their father’s portion in the Land of Israel, as he had no sons, who were usually the inheritors (Numbers Chapter 27). God said Yes, and they thus had the merit that the law be written “through” them. But the story doesn’t begin there. We begin in Egypt, cross the Red Sea, watch the little girls grow into adult women who are called, by our sages, “righteous and wise,” and they ultimately enter the Land of Israel.

I use a lot of poetic license for imaginative scenes that could have happened. I studied more than four years for the writing of this show, and some of my study partners were among the wisest women of Jerusalem. We have an ensemble cast that works together beautifully, including veteran RYS actresses and newcomers. I LOVE discovering new talent. Our lead choreographer, as for the last four productions, is the super creative, talented Sara Orenstein. This show’s music was composed by the legendary Mitch Clyman and is absolutely magical. I feel extremely blessed to have been able to have him give wings to my words and to have such a wonderful, love-filled cast and crew with whom to work.

Sara Orenstein has been our lead choreographer since 2008. We’ve always had actresses on stage ranging in age “from seven to seventy” (and sometimes even a little younger and older), but this is the first time we’ve also included young choreographers for several scenes.

By: Atara Beck, Senior Writer, United with Israel

For ticket information, click HERE.