Miriam Herst always knew she had a creative bent, but for years she did not have a chance to explore it.
She was raised in a Chicago suburb and spent her childhood reading and writing, but because her Orthodox Jewish school did not focus on the arts, she couldn’t develop her creativity, she said.
All that changed for Herst, and seven classmates, who, for the first time, were given both the freedom and structure to nurture and learn the arts in an Orthodox Jewish setting.
This month marks the close of the first year of Pittsburgh’s Tzohar Seminary, a post-high school program for girls that enables them to integrate their creative talents with the teachings of Chasidic Judaism.
Tzohar, which is the first program of its kind in the United States, is based in Squirrel Hill, on Forbes Avenue, in a space provided by Young People’s Synagogue.
Many Orthodox Jewish girls follow their graduation from high school with a year studying Judaics at a seminary, often in Israel. After seminary, many girls work at Chabad houses, and are then “focused on marriage,” said Amy Guterson, director and founder of Tzohar. But Tzohar provides girls who are interested in the arts with an alternative to more traditional seminary study.
“These girls are artists,” Guterson said of her Tzohar students, who come from all over the country. “Some will go on to further schooling.”
In addition to their Judaic studies, Tzohar students were immersed this year in classes of art, drama, filmmaking and writing. The classes were taught by an accomplished faculty, including Melissa Martin, the producer, writer and director of the award-winning, independent film “The Bread, My Sweet.” Martin also teaches graduate screenwriting at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama.
“I took a class of playwriting and screenwriting with Melissa Martin, who is a professor at CMU,” Herst said. “It was a cool opportunity to get outside my comfort zone.”
Herst then took what she learned at Tzohar and funneled it back into the Pittsburgh community, leading an after-school writing club at Yeshiva Girls School.
The Tzohar girls have spent the year creating projects that they probably would not have known how to create, nor have had the opportunity to create, without the seminary for Judaic arts.
“We just shot a film written and directed by a student (Rochel Goldsmith), a documentary about her and her grandmother,” said Guterson. A second film — a fictionalized story about a girl in high school — is also in the works, with another student acting in the film.
While 11 girls began the one-year program last fall, for a variety of reasons there has been some attrition, Guterson said. Still, “for most of the year, we had eight girls,” she said, noting that she has seen a lot of personal growth in her students.
“The girls came not quite knowing who they are, and have gained focus,” she said. “It’s a challenging age. I had come into this thinking, ‘OK, we are going to learn Chassidus, and put art into it,’ but for the girls, for some it was their first time away from home. In their Jewish schools, they were not getting art to this degree. But the arts are about finding one’s voice. The combination [of Judaics and the arts] has led to huge personal growth.”
Rabbi Aaron Herman, principal of Tzohar, sees the seminary developing into an institution that will enrich the Jewish community both within and beyond the parameters of Pittsburgh.
“A lot of our learning curve was about how to create a synthesis between Judaic studies and arts,” he said. “This really has not been done before. Our students have an appreciation of Jewish observance and Jewish life that they actually internalized, and created works from that appreciation. It is hugely important for students to own their Jewish life. It is extremely important.”
Projects completed by the girls this year include sculptures, personal essays, plays, songs, photography, a music video, and film production.
A mother/daughter shabbaton was held last weekend in celebration of the students’ completion of the program. Some of the girls’ projects were presented then, including artwork, writing, original short films, staged readings, and a choral performance. The girls also presented projects based on the stories of local women who survived the Holocaust.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)